DHAKA - A Bangladesh court Sunday acquitted the influential son of the main opposition leader in a money-laundering case, boosting his chances of returning to the country after more than five years in exile.
Tarique Rahman, the eldest son and designated successor of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, would have faced seven years in jail and a ban from contesting elections had he been found guilty.
Tarique has been living in London since September 2008 after he was forced into exile by the-then army-backed government. He still faces a number of other court cases.
Hundreds of lawyers belonging to the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) burst into loud cheers and shouted slogans as Judge Mohammad Motahar Hossain delivered the verdict in a packed Dhaka courtroom amid intense security.
"The prosecution could not prove the charges against Tarique Rahman beyond reasonable doubt," Judge Hossain told the court.
The verdict will bolster the BNP which launched a new wave of protests across the nation last month, demanding that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina resign and make way for a neutral caretaker government to oversee elections set for January.
At least 23 people have been killed in nationwide clashes during the latest wave of protests, which have pitted BNP supporters against ruling party activists and police.
"It's a politically motivated case. His acquital proved he was never involved in any corruption. We hope he can now return home," Tarique's lawyer Sanaullah Miah told AFP.
The judge, however, sentenced Tarique's business partner Giasuddin Al Mamun to seven years in jail and fined him five million dollars in the same case. He was found guilty of taking three million dollars in kickbacks from a local company in 2003.
The case was the first of 16 cases Tarique faces, including charges that he masterminded a grenade attack on a rally staged by Hasina in August 2004 when she was the leader of the opposition.
The attack killed at least 20 people and injured Hasina.
The centre-right BNP has been banking on Tarique's return to lead the election campaign because Zia, who served twice as prime minister, has been plagued by ill health for some time.
Tarique was made Zia's designated successor in 2008 when he was elevated to the post of senior vice-chairman of the party, a notch behind his mother.
He played a key role in the BNP's landslide victory in 2001 parliamentary elections.
Although he did not hold office in his mother's 2001-6 government, he was widely seen as the most influential person during her tenure.