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Bangladesh Creates Truth Commission

One of two former Bangladeshi prime ministers facing corruption charges appeared in court Monday. The hearing for Sheikh Hasina comes a day after the cabinet of the interim government approved formation of a truth commission. The military-backed government is promising corruption suspects they can avoid prison if they confess and surrender any illegally-earned wealth. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Dhaka.

Former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League made a brief appearance Monday in a special court in Bangladesh's capital. Her lawyers said they had not received necessary court documents and thus needed more time to prepare. The judge granted a six-day extension.

Hasina's rival, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, did not appear in court Monday as scheduled. Officials say she is ill but her lawyer told reporters the Bangladesh National Party matriarch is fine and it is a mystery as to why she was not brought to court by authorities.

The two former prime ministers are among 170 politicians and business people arrested by the reformist interim government, installed by the military 17 months ago.

The caretaker government on Sunday approved a Truth and Accountability Commission, designed to streamline the hundreds of corruption cases.

The country's acting foreign minister, known as the Foreign Adviser, Iftekhar Ahmed Chowhdury, tells VOA News those arrested in the massive anti-graft sweep will receive lenient treatment by the truth commission if they admit to the charges they face.

"It basically gives incentives to people to come forward and declare themselves," said Chowhdury. "And it wants to draw a curtain, to put an end, to this phase of national life."

Chowdhury says while the offer will be open to corruption suspects for a five-month period giving them a chance to avoid imprisonment, however, there will be some some sort of penalty imposed.

"Perhaps the person who has confessed it or returning ill-gotten wealth will have to face some kind of social probium or penal clauses," he said.

The president of the party, known as the JSD, Hasanul Haq Inu, says he is concerned the Truth and Accountability Commission will merely sweep cases under the rug.

"We think that it is actually legalizing the corrupt persons and you are keeping the real facts secret from the public," he said.

The emergency government says the truth commission will be headed by a retired senior government officer, a former army general or supreme court justice.

The latest prominent figure to be arrested in the anti-corruption drive is a former army chief taken into custody Sunday at a Dhaka hospital where he was undergoing treatment. Police say General Mustafizur Rhaman, along with former Prime Minister Hasina and five others, are accused of corruption in connection with the purchase of eight fighter jets from Russia for the Bangladesh Air Force.

Bangladesh, with 150 million people, has consistently been ranked as one of the world's most corrupt countries.

The military took over in January 2007 following prolonged political turmoil. It declared emergency rule and installed a caretaker government dedicated to stamping out corruption as a prelude to a return to democracy. Elections are now set for this December but open campaigning is not yet permitted. The government is attempting to negotiate with the key parties to ensure their participation in the polling.

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