September 3, 2007 5:15 pm

Former Bangladesh PM arrested

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The army-backed crackdown on Bangladesh’s notoriously venal ruling class entered a decisive phase on Monday with the long-expected arrest of former prime minister Khaleda Zia on corruption charges.

Mrs Zia, leader of the Bangladesh National party, and her younger son Arafat Rahman were taken from their Dhaka home to court and remanded in custody, pending investigation by the government’s anti-graft body, officials said.

She joins Sheikh Hasina, her bitter rival and another former prime minister, and more than 170 other senior political figures who have been put behind bars since the military-backed caretaker government declared a state of emergency in January.

Mrs Zia’s detention came hours after the anti-corruption commission filed charges against Mrs Hasina, the head of the Awami League, accusing her of taking illegal payments from a private electricity firm.

Mainul Husein, the administration’s law and information adviser, said the arrest of Mrs Zia, who served two terms as prime minister, proved that “no one is above the law” in the government’s drive against corruption.

The arrest of Mrs Zia and her son came after the commission accused her of illegally influencing the selection of an operator for two state-run container depots in 2003, during her second term in power, which ended last October.

The selection allegedly cost the government $145m.

Mrs Zia said the charges were part of a “conspiracy to tarnish the image” of her and her party. “We have done nothing wrong. This case against us must be lifted,” she said.

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 army has played a critical behind-the-scenes role in Bangladesh since January 11, when it sacked a caretaker government packed with Mrs Zia’s allies and summoned technocrats to form a new one.

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. A spokesman for the Indian foreign ministry said: “We would hope that the people of Bangladesh will be enabled to choose their representatives in a free, fair and democratic process.

“In our view, the early and full restoration of democracy, due process of law and respect for individual rights will contribute to the evolution of a stable, democratic and prosperous Bangladesh.”

Analysts said the interim government – led by bureaucrat Fakhruddin Ahmed – had lost much of its early popularity as a result of its preoccupation with weakening the political opposition at the expense of its declared reform and anti-corruption agenda.

Maria Kuusisto, an analyst at Eurasia, a political risk consultancy, said: “The public now suspects that the government campaign against the political parties will lead to the military’s formal return to politics.”

Barred from organising public rallies, the two parties have in recent weeks used their student wings to pressure the interim government. Protests in Dhaka and five other large cities have drawn support from sections of the general public.

For five consecutive years from 2001 to 2005, Transparency International ranked Bangladesh as the most corrupt country in the world. It moved down to third in 2006.

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