Zia, the leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) who twice served as prime minister, was excused from attending the hearing on security grounds.
But the anti-corruption court judge rejected her lawyers’ request that the case be postponed after a series of delays, and her trial got under way at a makeshift court set up near Dhaka’s old Mughal-era quarter.
“After so many delays we’ve finally been able to start the trial today,” lead prosecutor Mosharraf Hossain told reporters.
“The case has already been delayed 40 times since the court accepted the charges against her years ago,” Hossain said.
Zia and three of her aides are accused of syphoning off 31.5 million from a charitable trust named after her late husband Ziaur Rahman, a former president who was assassinated in 1981.
She is also accused of leading a group of five people, including her eldest son, in embezzling 21.5 million taka — funds which were meant to go to an orphanage set up in memory of her late husband.
Zia has called the charges politically motivated and aimed at destroying the BNP, which has vowed to topple the government of her arch rival Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
On Monday her lawyers said they had sought a further postponement on security grounds due to a nationwide strike called by opposition parties.
“But the judge rejected our appeals and started the hearings in her absence,” Zia’s lawyer Masud Talukder told reporters.
Last week Bangladesh’s highest court cleared the way for the start of the trial after dismissing two of her appeals seeking suspension of the cases.
The trial was adjourned until October 13 after the first prosecution witness, an official with the country’s anti-corruption agency, began giving evidence
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