DHAKA: A Bangladesh judge convicted opposition leader Khaleda Zia of corruption and sentenced her to five years in jail on Thursday as police clashed with thousands of her supporters outside the court.
The court found the two-time former premier guilty of embezzling money meant for an orphanage, a charge she had consistently dismissed as politically motivated.
Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), is expected to appeal against the verdict, but it may affect her ability to stand in a general election slated for December.
She was immediately taken to a special jail in the old part of the city where she would have to remain until her lawyers file an appeal.
Bangladesh bans street protests ahead of Khaleda Zia's verdict
"This is a false and staged case. No way we will accept this verdict," BNP secretary general Fakhrul Islam Alamgir told AFP after the hearing.
Zia's lawyer Khandkar Mahbub Hossain said the ruling was "political vengeance" and would be overturned by a higher court.
Violence erupted in major cities across Bangladesh at news of the guilty verdict, with BNP supporters clashing with police and activists from the ruling party.
Police fired rubber bullets at demonstrators in the northeastern city of Sylhet, spokesman Abdul Wahab told AFP. At least four people have been injured in the clashes, he added.
Police said they arrested at least seven BNP officials in the port city of Chittagong, including the local head of the party, after opposition supporters scuffled with police.
Ahead of the hearing in Dhaka police fired tear gas at thousands of opposition activists who defied heavy security to escort the car taking Zia to the magistrates court.
The private television station Somoy said at least five police officers had been injured and two motorcycles torched during the clashes that broke out several kilometres (miles) from the court premises.
Authorities have for days been on high alert for protests in the tense city, where political demonstrations by Zia's centre-right BNP and its allies in 2014 and 2015 left nearly 200 people dead.
Around 3,500 opposition activists and officials were arrested in a sweep by security forces ahead of the verdict according to BNP spokesperson Rizvi Ahmed.
A senior officer told AFP more than 5,000 police had been deployed in Dhaka.
Zia, 72, is a former ally turned arch-foe of Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Her party boycotted 2014 polls in which Hasina was re-elected but is expected to contest the upcoming general election.
Zia, who entered politics in the mid-1980s after her military dictator husband was assassinated in an abortive coup, also faces dozens of separate charges related to violence and corruption.
She has repeatedly said the charges against her are aimed at excluding her and her family from politics.
Her son Rahman lives in exile in London and was convicted of money-laundering in 2016.
Last month prosecutors sought the death penalty over his alleged role in a deadly 2004 grenade attack that injured Hasina.
Zia and her son were detained by an army-backed government in 2007 and spent a year and a half in detention pending trials for alleged corruption.
"This is an attempt to use the court against me, in an effort to sideline me from politics and elections and to isolate me from the people," she told a packed news conference on Wednesday.
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Human Rights Watch on Thursday urged the government to stop what it called "arbitrary arrests and detentions".
"The Bangladesh government's claims to be open and democratic ring hollow as it cracks down on political dissent," said the group's Asia director Brad Adams.
"The government has a responsibility to prevent and minimise violence, but it needs to do so in a way that respects basic rights, not flouts them."
Many private schools declared a holiday on Thursday in anticipation of the verdict, while several ride-hailing services announced a day-long suspension of their operations.
Police set up check-posts at key entry points of the city in an effort to prevent thousands of rural supporters of BNP and its allies from marching to the capital.
"Dhaka is effectively cut off, people in panic," read the front-page headline of the Bengali-language newspaper Prothom Alo.