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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 January 2008, 16:15 GMT
Ex-Bangladesh PM's trial starts
Sheikh Hasina in a file photo from July 2006
Sheikh Hasina says the charges are a ploy to keep her from office
The extortion trial of the former Bangladeshi Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, has formally begun.

The case centres around the accusation that money was paid to the government for permission to build a power plant.

But the businessman who filed the case told the court that it was not Sheikh Hasina who had demanded the payment, but one of her cousins.

Sheikh Hasina and family members deny receiving payments of about $435,000 from the businessman from 1996 to 2001.

Dozens of high-profile figures have been arrested on corruption charges by the emergency government which came to power with the army's support a year ago.

'Politically motivated'

The special court set up on the grounds of Bangladesh's defunct parliament to try this case - after numerous adjournments - heard from Azam J Chowdhury, the owner of a power company.

He said that in 2000 he was asked to pay a bribe to get the government's clearance to build a new power plant.

Khaleda Zia
Khaleda Zia also denies corruption

He said a government minister, Sheikh Selim, the cousin of the then Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, demanded this money, saying that some of it would go to Sheikh Hasina herself.

Mr Chowdhury said he did not have any direct contact with Sheikh Hasina himself.

The former prime minister has denied the charge, saying that the government's anti-corruption drive is politically motivated.

Sheikh Selim has also denied the charges, and claimed he was tortured into making a statement implicating Sheikh Hasina.

Their lawyers say they could face at least five years in jail if found guilty.

The trial of another former Prime Minister, Khaleda Zia, on similar charges has yet to start.

The two women - leaders of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Awami League respectively - alternated as leaders of the country for 15 years until October 2006.

They have accused the government of wanting to prevent them from standing in elections which it has promised to hold by the end of the year.

The government says the two politicians are responsible for turning Bangladesh, one of the world's poorest countries, into one of its most corrupt.

Correspondents say that if they lose their court cases, both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia will almost certainly be banned from participating in the elections.



SEE ALSO
Trial of ex-Bangladesh PM delayed
17 Jan 08 |  South Asia
Bangladeshi court charges ex-PM
13 Jan 08 |  South Asia
Q&A: Bangladesh crisis
03 Sep 07 |  South Asia
Bangladesh ex-PM loses bail plea
27 Aug 07 |  South Asia
Bangladesh ex-PM formally charged
24 Jul 07 |  South Asia
What the arrest of former PM means
16 Jul 07 |  South Asia

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