Bangladesh's corruption probe sets back interim government

Former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed's victory signals continued tensions that could spill into the region.

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Bangladesh's High Court has quashed a corruption case against former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, which was brought about under emergency rules established by a military-backed interim government. Sheikh Hasina's lawyers successfully argued that the alleged offenses predated the emergency rules that came into force last year. The Supreme Court is due to hear an appeal Thursday from government prosecutors, who have warned that the ruling jeopardizes a broad anticorruption drive against political heavyweights.

The country suspended parliamentary rule in January 2007 amid preelection street violence and concerns over systematic corruption by successive elected governments. Sheikh Hasina and her archrival, Khaleda Zia, with whom she alternated power for 15 years through 2006, were detained last year along with scores of family members, senior politicians, and business associates. They were accused of massive graft, and the military promised to put them on trial and restore democratic rule by the end of 2008.

Continued instability in the world's third-most populous Muslim country could have wider implications throughout the region – and the world, analysts say. In December 2007, Bangladesh increased security for its two jailed former prime ministers after the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, reports Xinhua. Sheikh Hasina survived an attack at a 2004 rally. One Indian journalist who writes about security issues described the significance of the possible "Talibanization" of Bagladesh in the Asia Times: "The growing frequency of such attacks is triggering concern not only that Bangladesh is vulnerable to violence by Islamic fundamentalists but also that it is emerging as another Afghanistan, i.e., as a base from which terrorists can plan and carry out attacks elsewhere."

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The two detained politicians have claimed the corruption cases are a ruse to bar them from competing in future elections, the BBC reports. Hasina's lawyer Rafiq-ul Huq said Wednesday's High Court ruling "has ensured the supremacy of the constitution." The prosecution alleges that Hasina and two family members extorted about $435,000 from a local businessman during her term in office between 1996 and 2001. All have denied the charges.

The Supreme Court has sided with authorities during previous appeals against lower court rulings, however, and Karul Islam, another lawyer for Hasina, predicted a short-lived legal victory, reports Agence France-Presse.

"We will fight in the Supreme Court, although we have very dim hope for a positive verdict. In the past, the Supreme Court's appellate division has overturned all the High Court verdicts in favour of the government," he said…
Hasina faces a maximum 14 years in jail if convicted. The trial is expected to be concluded within the next two months, as stipulated by the country's emergency rules.

The Daily Star in Dhaka reports that around 150 corruption cases filed under emergency power rules (EPR) could be affected by the ruling. Of these, around 50 have already led to convictions and jail sentences. The remainder are either in court or awaiting indictments. The alleged offenses include tax evasion, extortion, asset concealment and profiting from illegal activities.

The High Court ruling is a major setback to the interim government's plan to prevent corrupt politicians from taking part in elections, says the Star.

According to a provision of EPR, any person, convicted of corruption by a trial court, will be disqualified from contesting in any election until adjudication of the person's appeal against the verdict.
But, if detained and fugitive political leaders are tried under general laws instead of EPR, then even convicted persons will be able to contest in polls until the Supreme Court upholds the convictions by the trial courts, which is usually a very lengthy process.

Another important distinction in the judicial process under emergency rules is that the accused aren't eligible for bail, says the Associated Press. If the government were forced to revert to regular laws, detained suspects would be allowed to seek bail.

In an editorial published Thursday, the Daily Star criticized the government for insisting on fast-track trials under emergency rules and for failing to anticipate the resulting legal challenge. It praised the High Court for upholding due process of law in its ruling, while arguing that corruption investigations of high-profile suspects are long overdue and necessary.

But the shoddy and poor handling of the legal process has created a situation where they might just begin to look like "victims" of legal harassment. These people are likely to get the benefit of the situation where the validity of the legal proceedings in the corruption cases might be questioned. We cannot but question the wisdom of the government's legal advisers who clearly failed to see in advance the weaknesses and limitations of applying the EPR, when the existing laws could have taken care of the corruption cases.

A senior politician warned Wednesday that holding elections while Hasina and Ms. Zia are both in jail would be unacceptable, the Bangladesh Independent reports. Khandaker Delwar Hossain is secretary-general leader of the BNP, Zia's political party; Hasina heads the rival Awami League, which won the last election in 2001.

"Both the leaders have been locked up to keep them away from elections. No polls will be accepted with them behind bars," Delwar said at a meeting with lawyers belonging to Dhaka District Lawyers Association.

The BNP leader demanded immediate release of the two former prime ministers and all political leaders if the polls were to be peaceful.

The Election Commission has begun talks with political parties to prepare for elections by the end of the year, Bloomberg reports. Chief Election Commissioner A.T.M. Shamsul Huda said photo identity cards had been issued to 26 million out of an estimated 85 million eligible voters, as part of an overhaul of electoral rolls that in past ballots were inflated by duplication and fake names to over 90 million voters.

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