A familiar Scenario

16 July 2007

Former Bangladesh PM arrested in corruption crackdown

Randeep Ramesh

Police escort former Bangladeshi prime minister and Awami League president, Sheikh Hasina, to a court in Dhaka. Photograph: Abu Taher Khokon/AP
Police escort former Bangladeshi prime minister and Awami League president, Sheikh Hasina, to a court in Dhaka. Photograph: Abu Taher Khokon/AP

Bangladesh’s former prime minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed was arrested by hundreds of armed police in a dawn raid today and held in prison on charges of extortion – the most high-profile arrest in an anti-graft crackdown by the military-backed government.

Sheikh Hasina, who ruled the impoverished country from 1996 to 2001, was accused by two businessmen in separate cases of extortion totalling 80 million taka (£570,000).

Her supporters immediately took to the streets after the arrest although eyewitnesses said protesters had been dispersed by police firing tear gas and bullets into the crowds.

The Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina, says the moves are designed to prevent her contesting an upcoming national election scheduled for late 2008. Sajeeb Wazed Joy, Sheikh Hasina’s influential son who lives in the United States, said his mother’s detention was a conspiracy to remove her from politics.

“I have spoken to my mother. She told me about the police action … it’s part of a deep-rooted conspiracy,” he told reporters in Dhaka by telephone.

These claims were denied by the head of Bangladesh’s army-backed interim government, Fakhruddin Ahmed. The former World Bank economist told reporters after the arrest that no one in the country was above law. “Anyone involved in corruption will be tracked down and prosecuted.”

Bangladesh is under a state of emergency imposed by the interim administration, which took charge in January.

Although initially welcomed by the international community for stabilising the country, the new administration has been criticised for back-pedalling on its pledge to organise quickly a fresh election and relinquish power.

Both Sheikh Hasina and her political rival Begum Khaleda Zia have been thrown together by the new government’s zeal to “clean up” politics.

Mrs Zia, the leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP), was today summoned for tax evasion to appear in court on August. Mrs Zia’s son, Tareque, has already been detained for corruption and abuse of power.

Sheikh Hasina and Mrs Zia, called the “battling begums” for their intense political rivalry, ran the country alternately from 1991 to 2006. Many accuse the pair of bringing the country to the brink of anarchy last year.

The new government attempted to exile both in April as part of its efforts to reshape Bangladesh politics, although it later abandoned the plan.

“What [the old parties] have become concerned about [is] being replaced by new political parties that are being created [by the new administration]. The interim government denies this,” Haroon Habib, a Dhaka-based political writer, told Delhi’s NDTV.

Since January, an estimated 200,000 people, including hundreds of leading politicians and businessmen, have been jailed under emergency rules that suspend civil rights and ban political activity.

Critics say Bangladesh used to be the world’s second-largest Muslim democracy, after Indonesia. But after the bloodless coup it is turning into the world’s second-largest military regime, after Pakistan.

Source: The Guardians


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