Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Bangladesh Permits Ex-Premier to Return; Hasina face charges

NORA BOUSTANY

A defiant Sheikh Hasina, former prime minister of Bangladesh, arrived in the capital, Dhaka, on Monday after the government lifted an entry ban that had stranded her in London on her way home from the United States. She was greeted at the airport by thousands of well-wishers who ignored official orders against political rallies.

Hasina's longtime rival, Khaleda Zia, prime minister in the previous government, remained under house arrest after four weeks with no working telephone lines to her home, as the government of former central bank governor Fakhruddin Ahmed prepared summary trials of prominent political figures.

"No one can stop me," Hasina, head of the Awami League, told reporters at the airport, according to news service reports from Dhaka. "This is my country, they cannot keep me from coming back."

Hasina faces charges of extortion and supporting bloodletting during street scuffles between followers of the Awami League and activists loyal to Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Hasina denies the charges.

On Monday, she declined to say whether she planned to run for office again.

As street violence mounted last winter, an interim government declared a state of emergency Jan. 11 and canceled parliamentary elections scheduled for Jan. 22, citing international concern over the validity of voter registration lists. With approval of the army, authorities have promised to clean up the political system, targeting political figures they accuse of corruption.

On Monday, Ahmed reaffirmed plans to hold elections before the end of next year and promised to ensure a free press. Some journalists and intellectuals in Bangladesh expressed skepticism that his military-backed government will carry out those promises.

It remains unclear who and which parties would take part in elections. Last Thursday, Grameen Bank founder and Nobel Peace laureate Muhammad Yunus announced he was abandoning plans to form a party and run for office, saying that individuals who had promised to support him had backed out.

One of the politicians arrested in sweeps that followed January's street violence is Mohiuddin Alamgir, 66, a former civil servant and Awami League member. The charges against him have changed from treason to extortion to corruption, according to his son Jalal Alamgir, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. The rights for bail and an appeal have been withdrawn, Jalal Alamgir said.

Mohiuddin Alamgir told his son by telephone in recent days that he was to be the first to appear in court on Wednesday and that he did not know whether his attorneys would be allowed to make a statement. It is the only conversation he has had with his father since his arrest in February, Jalal Alamgir said, and was due to the kindness of a police escort who offered the prisoner a cellphone.

"My biggest fear is that those will be kangaroo courts, since the government has another set of rules for these tribunals," said Jalal Alamgir. "The drive against corruption is legitimate, but it has also been used as a cover against people who may be vocal against military rule and an authoritarian takeover." #

This article was first published in the Washington Post, May 8, 2007; page A20