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Last Updated: Monday, 16 July 2007, 13:51 GMT 14:51 UK
What the arrest of former PM means
By Sabir Mustafa
BBC Bengali service editor

Sheikh Hasina being arrested
It's not the first time the former PM has been arrested
Former Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was arrested on Monday and sent off to jail for a month. But this was not just another arrest, triggered by yet another corruption case.

When hundreds of police and elite forces descended on her home in the early hours of Monday, it was the culmination of two months of gradual tightening of the proverbial noose.

Back in May, Sheikh Hasina foiled a government attempt to send her into exile and returned to the country in a blaze of publicity. Thousands of her supporters defied a government ban and cheered her through the streets of Dhaka.

The euphoria was short-lived though, as she was placed under what amounted to house arrest almost immediately after her return.

'No accountability'

Police cordoned off all roads leading to her house in an up-market Dhaka residential area. Only a handful of party leaders and close relatives were allowed to visit her.

Sheikh Hasina. File photo
Born on 28 September, 1947
Her father was Bangladesh's first president and independence hero, Mujibur Rahman
During Bangladesh's war of liberation War in 1971, was imprisoned by the Pakistani army
Was abroad in August 1975 when her father, mother and three brothers were all murdered in Dhaka
Elected the president of the Awami League in 1981 while in exile
Put under house arrest several times in Bangladesh during the mid 1980s
Became prime minister after elections of 1996 but lost elections of 2001

When she tried to go to the southern port city of Chittagong last month to visit survivors of a catastrophic landslide, police stopped her from leaving the house.

Likewise, when she tried to travel to the US in late June to see her expectant daughter, the police deployed additional forces and prevented her from going to the airport.

In between all that, a number of extortion cases were registered against her in different police stations. On Monday, Sheikh Hasina was arrested in one of those extortion cases, filed over a month ago.

Earlier, she was charged in a murder case allegedly involving her Awami League party members in the death of four Islamist activists during demonstrations last October. The government is also reviving a number of corruption cases filed against her several years ago.

All the while, Sheikh Hasina has been campaigning for early elections, suggesting that the military-backed caretaker government did not have a mandate to govern for a long time.

The government has promised to hold elections before the end of 2008. But Sheikh Hasina believes that is too long in power for an unelected administration without any accountability.

'Torturing politicians'

She upped the ante in this cat-and-mouse game a week ago. While speaking to journalists, she did what has long been regarded in Bangladesh as the ''undoable'' - she publicly accused the defence intelligence agency, the DGFI, of meddling in politics.

Sheikh Hasina accused the military-run DGFI of ''arresting and torturing politicians'' and engaging in efforts to make or break political parties.

''It is not the DGFI's business to get involved in politics, to make or break political parties. What kind of intelligence activity is it, when the agency tortures people, and administers electric shocks?'' she asked.

Police in Bangladesh

To many observers in Dhaka, it was only a matter of time before she was arrested. Her supporters believe there is more politics than law behind her arrest.

''The government has arrested her in order to cut her off from her supporters and party workers. This arrest is politically motivated, which is unfortunate. Nobody in this country can support such an arrest'', Motia Chowdhury, a senior Awami League member told the BBC.

Sheikh Hasina herself believes the various corruption and extortion cases are being lined up to force her out of politics. Once convicted, she would be disqualified from standing in the next general elections.

According to political observers in Dhaka, her fears are not without basis.

The arrest comes at a time when the government is making behind-the-scene attempts to force major political parties to change their top leadership.

It has quietly encouraged a group of senior leaders in the Awami League to float ''reform'' proposals aimed at curbing her powers and easing her out of the leadership.

But the ''reformists'' have made little headway, except in grabbing newspaper headlines.

Awami League rank-and-file members around the country have failed to rally to their cause. While most seem to agree on the need for reforms, few want it done at the expense of Sheikh Hasina.

''There is a feeling in Dhaka that, if Hasina remains at the helm, the reformists would lose the battle,'' the newspaper editor Bazlur Rahman told the BBC.

''The government has been taking a series of steps to neutralise Sheikh Hasina by isolating her,'' he said.

Observers believe that, as long as Sheikh Hasina is able to appeal directly to her party's supporters, the "reformers" have little chance. The need to remove her from the scene, therefore, had become imperative.

War-like situation

The government says her arrest is part and parcel of a general drive against corruption launched by the military-backed interim government since 11 January.

Ministers point to a series of corruption and extortion cases filed against Sheikh Hasina, and suggest that nobody should be above the law.

Protest in Bangladesh in 2006
It's not yet clear whether the arrest will generate more street protests

But senior Awami League leaders feel there was no need to arrest her, as she was already under close police observation. Other political party leaders point to the manner of her arrest as disturbing.

''The way she was arrested, with all those hundreds of police and other forces, did not seem a pleasant sight. It appeared almost as if we are going through a war-like situation. I don't think this will create a positive impression,'' said Rashed Khan Menon, leader of the leftist Workers Party.

The arrest of Sheikh Hasina represents a significant event in Bangladesh. The caretaker government has now delivered a clear signal to the Awami League that it wants to see a wholesale change in the party's leadership before the next general elections.

The big question is: which way will the Awami League - the party which led Bangladesh to independence in 1971 and which celebrates its 60th anniversary next year - go now?

Will it give in to government pressure and accept Sheikh Hasina's ''dismissal'' from politics? Or will it regroup its forces and launch yet another long, violent round of protests?

The people of Bangladesh may not have the desire for any more political agitation. But early indications suggest that protests and agitation are very much on the cards.

Ex-Bangladesh PM arrives in Dhaka
07 May 07 |  South Asia
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23 Apr 07 |  South Asia
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05 Apr 07 |  South Asia
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27 Mar 07 |  South Asia
Country profile: Bangladesh
05 Jun 07 |  Country profiles

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