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Last Updated: Monday, 3 September 2007, 17:46 GMT 18:46 UK
Bangladesh stuck in political limbo
By Sabir Mustafa
Editor, BBC Bengali service


Khaleda Zia (file photo)
Ms Zia faces charges of extortion and corruption
The interim government in Bangladesh has hit another landmark, arresting one of the country's most charismatic politicians, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.

This arrest brings to an end weeks of speculation about the government's intentions.

There were clear signs that the government was preparing to jail Ms Zia, with investigations into financial dealings during her last term in office.

But speculation was also rife that the government wanted to do a deal with her - particularly after she was allowed to clear outstanding income taxes dating back years, rather than face charges for tax evasion.

Diverse reactions

The Anti-Corruption Commission's decision to bite the bullet and file a specific charge triggered diverse reactions.

"This has been done to harass her politically, to prevent her from carrying out her political functions'' retired Brigadier Hannan Shah, a close aide to Ms Zia, told the BBC.

But others were not surprised.

"It was no secret that the government was preparing to act against her. In fact, many were asking why Khaleda Zia had not been arrested yet", said Muhammad Jahangir, a media analyst in Dhaka.

This has been done to harass her politically, to prevent her from carrying out her political functions
Brigadier Hannan Shah
Aide to Ms Zia

The government is presenting the arrest as a clear demonstration that the drive against corruption is transparent and neutral.

"This charge was filed by the Commission, based on sound evidence. There is no politics involved here and the government has not interfered", said Law and Justice Minister Mainul Hossain.

For her part, Ms Zia believes the charges and arrests are designed to "destroy" her family and remove them from Bangladesh's political scene.

She was arrested along with her younger son Arafat. Her elder son Tarique is already in jail facing corruption charges.

There is little doubt that the military-led government wants to see an end to the Zia family's domination of Bangladesh politics.

But that is only part of the story.

Rampant corruption

Ms Zia has led her Bangladesh Nationalist Party - or - BNP unchallenged for nearly 25 years. Tarique emerged as heir apparent after the party's stunning electoral triumph in 2001.

Tarique's rapid rise to become the most powerful man in the country - with tales of rampant corruption associated with his band of cronies - alienated many inside the party.

Policeman chases student in Dhaka during August 2007 protests
Anti-government rioting took place on campuses across the country
Other sections of society were also angered by what they saw as a brazen attempt to install and perpetuate a dynasty.

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.

Ms Hasina was put in jail in July and charged in a series of extortion and corruption cases. Now with Ms Zia in jail, the government's confidence level is likely to reach a new high.

That confidence reached rock bottom towards the end of August, when students at Dhaka University were joined by thousands of others in three days of street demonstrations.

The violent protests and clashes with police and army led the government to impose a curfew and arrest university teachers.

There were allegations of widespread assaults on students and torture of people in custody.

Media censorship

Private television channels have been told not to air any critical political views or news of anti-government protests.

With universities closed, the media gagged, and a sense of fear pervading all sections of society, the government apparently feels strong enough to act against yet another political icon.

This is no way to strengthen democracy
Mahfuz Anam
Daily Star

On one level, the arrest and likely trial of the two leaders demonstrates the government's determination to tackle corruption at the highest level.

This is likely to go down well with the public, who have long resented the idea of politicians placing themselves above the law.

The only thing which remains to be seen is how independently and fairly the special corruption courts are allowed to function.

On another level, it shows the government is still pursuing its agenda of forcing reforms in political parties, including leadership changes.

This has been one of the major factors in eroding public support for the government over the past few months.

"This is no way to strengthen democracy", wrote Mahfuz Anam, editor of the Daily Star in reaction to the arrest of Sheikh Hasina in July.

"The government is attempting to manipulate our politics by trying to predetermine who will be and who will not be part of its future".

Push for reform

The big question in Bangladesh now is - what kind of future does the government have in mind?

Senior government officials have repeatedly said there is no point in holding elections if they only bring back the "corrupt and the criminal".

In short, parties must reform if they want to get back into politics.

But with political parties severely weakened, many wonder what kind of political landscape the military-backed government is creating.

There are worries that the anti-corruption drive may have become a weapon in the government's reform plan, with which to get rid of troublesome leaders.

If this becomes evident, then public support for the anti-corruption drive itself could start to erode.

At the moment, the government retains enough credibility to pursue its agenda.

But many Bangladeshis are increasingly restless for the ban on political activities to be lifted.

As long the ban exists, the country's politics remains in a limbo - unreformed, unbowed, but unable to re-assert itself, leading to more frustration and pent-up anger.

The same kind of frustration and anger that led to August's violent protests.




VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Khaleda Zia arrives at court



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