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Former Bangladeshi Prime Minister Returns Home


Bangladesh's former prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has returned to Dhaka after being away for two months. Ms. Hasina and senior members of her political party face murder charges stemming from violent political protests last year. The charges were filed while she was in the United States for a vacation, and last month she had been denied permission to board a flight home. VOA's Steve Herman reports from our South Asia bureau in New Delhi.

Two weeks after her first attempt to return home, former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina stepped off a commercial airliner at Dhaka's airport, which was surrounded by tight security.

She was greeted by ten officials of her Awami League, the maximum number allowed at the airport by the military-backed interim government. She told reporters she was excited to be home.

No welcoming rally was permitted because the country is under a state of emergency imposed by the government in January.

Ms. Hasina returned after the government relented in its attempt to force her into exile. But now that she is back home, she faces charges ranging from extortion to abetting murder.

The president of the Bangladesh Political Science Association, Ataur Rahman of Dhaka University, sees the face-off as a political gamble for both the government and the former prime minister. He says both sides must now be prepared to take their battle to the courtroom.

"The government should really put [forward] some evidence to substantiate their charge. Otherwise this will boomerang, this will have a strong backlash against the government," said Rahman. "Sheikh Hasina must be prepared to do it [fight the charges] unless she makes a deal with the government."

Before boarding her flight at London's Heathrow airport, Ms. Hasina told reporters that she did not know whether she would be arrested on her return, but her immediate priority is to work for the restoration of democracy in Bangladesh.

The Awami League president first tried to return home in mid-April, but the interim government barred her return on security grounds, saying it feared unrest.

Ms. Hasina was prime minister between 1996 and 2001. She has long been a fierce rival of another former prime minister, Khaleda Zia.

A key ally of Ms. Zia's Bangladesh National party, the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, has filed a criminal complaint against Ms. Hasina and other Awami League leaders, alleging they were responsible for the deaths of six of their activists during a political demonstration last year.

The military-backed interim government, which declared a state of emergency in January, has made moves since then to eliminate from politics the two women, who are known as the "battling begums."

Dhaka University professor Rahman predicts their era of influence is indeed over.

"They will lose the leadership positions in their parties. And also they will not be able to play a very dominant role in Bangladesh politics in the coming years," he said. "I am sure about that. But how this will unfold, I do not know."

The two women are heirs to the country's leading political dynasties. Sheikh Hasina's father was the first president of Bangladesh, who was assassinated. Ms. Zia's husband, a former military dictator, also was assassinated.

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