Bangladesh Army-backed government detains ex-prime minister

Bangladesh's leaders now are holding two former prime ministers, and myriad other politicians, in custody.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Bangladesh's former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia was arrested Monday on corruption charges as an Army-backed interim government extends its crackdown on the political elite. She was arrested at her home in the capital, Dhaka, and taken into detention together with her younger son, Arafat Rahman. An anticorruption commission has accused her of meddling in the selection of a private operator at a state-owned container depot in 2003.

The Financial Times reported Tuesday that more than 170 senior politicians have been jailed since January, when the caretaker administration declared emergency rule. Among those detained so far is Sheikh Hasina, another former prime minister. Mrs. Zia and Mrs. Hasina lead rival political parties that were preparing to contest parliamentary elections in January 2007 until the Army intervened.

The two former prime ministers have dominated Bangladesh's politics since the restoration of democracy in 1990. They head the country's two biggest parties and their supporters have frequently engaged in violent street clashes….
The two women have been blamed for promoting a culture of political corruption. The authorities, backed by the powerful armed forces, have vowed to clean up the country's politics before holding new elections by the end of 2008.

Agence-France Presse reports that authorities are pressing ahead with trials of other detained politicians and insisting that the antigraft commission is politically neutral. A lawyer for Zia called the case against her "fabricated, motivated, conspiratorial and fictitious."

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At least a dozen former ministers, their spouses and lawmakers have been tried in fast-track courts set up at the parliament building. They have been sentenced to between five and 32 years in jail for corruption.

The Guardian reports that Zia rose to prominence after the murder of her husband during a coup in the early 1980s, and later became Bangladesh’s first elected prime minister in 1991 after democracy was restored. But the battle for supremacy between Zia and Hasina created tensions that often erupted on the streets, particularly during election campaigns.

In a political analysis, the BBC reports that the rival family dynasties had become a lightning rod for criticsin Bangladesh. Zia's eldest son was being groomed as her successor to lead the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), while the Hasina family had an unshakable grip on the rival Awami League. By removing their iconic leaders, the Army is trying to force the political parties to reform ahead of the next elections.

The government has not made any secret of its desire to force the two largest political parties, the BNP and its main rival the Awami League, to carry out extensive internal reforms.
The central plank of this reform process is the so-called "minus-two solution" - the BNP without the Zia family, and the Awami League without its iconic leader Sheikh Hasina.
The first, ill-conceived efforts to get rid of the two women failed miserably last May, when both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia successfully fought off clumsy attempts by the government to send them into exile.
Now the government seems back on course, pursuing the same agenda.

In a front-page commentary, Bangladesh's Daily Star blames Zia for failing to clean up politics after winning a landslide election victory in 2001. Newspaper editor Mahfuz Anam writes that Zia's unassailable position in parliament should have allowed her to punish corrupt politicians, overhaul the economy, and reach out to her opponents. Instead, she oversaw a deepened political polarization and culture of systematic graft that deterred foreign investors.

It is amazing how little concern was expressed for the issue of corruption and how little was done to investigate the thousands of corruption stories that the media relentlessly published. Instead of finding out the culprits, it was the media that were accused of deliberately maligning the image of the country. Whether or not Khaleda Zia was personally corrupt the courts will decide. But the fact that she tolerated it and did absolutely nothing to either fight corruption or even to raise it as a matter of concern, are now a matter of record.
Now that Khaleda Zia is in custody we will insist that she be given all the protection of law and rights guaranteed by the constitution, especially since she has been twice our elected prime minister. Yet today we cannot but feel deeply sorry for the magnificent opportunity she wasted. Instead of giving us a Bangladesh of unity and growth she left us in a mire worse than the one when she came to power.

The Khaleej Times in the United Arab Emirates takes a more skeptical view of the interim government's actions in a commentary titled "Who Wins in Bangladesh?" The editorial says Bangladesh's legal process lacks transparency and is more concerned with settling political scores than restoring genuine democracy.

The parliamentary elections are still a matter of speculation. The promise is that it will be held before the end of next year. Chances are that the military-backed dispensation will carry on with its acts for more time. Some are worried whether the democratic process will be restored at all in Bangladesh, one of the few Muslim countries to have prided themselves with the system of popularly-elected governments. Uncertainty is very much in the air.

The Times of India reports that the Indian government is calling for a quick return to democracy in Bangladesh. Reacting to Zia's arrest Monday, India’s Ministry for External Affairs called for the "early and full restoration of democracy" in Bangladesh for the first time since emergency rule was declared in January, according to the Times. It said recent street clashes between protesters and security forces – and Bangladesh’s reaction to them – had tipped India’s hand.

It is the first rap on the knuckles of the caretaker government in Dhaka, which many feel is getting too complacent with the situation. India would have gone along with the situation if stability had been the reigning force.
But after last week's riots ... India sees a dangerous slide in the situation.
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