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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 / September 4, 2007

Bangkok, Thailand

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.

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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."

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.