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Bangladesh's Battling Begums May Get Medical Release

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Media reports in Bangladesh say the military-backed interim government is poised to allow the medical release of two former prime ministers jailed for alleged corruption. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in our South Asia bureau in New Delhi reports the decision would be a face-saving way to break a political deadlock that could clear the way for scheduled elections to put Bangladesh back on track to democracy.

Media reports from Dhaka say the caretaker government there is likely to decide that former prime ministers Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia will be allowed to go abroad for medical treatment. The two political foes, known as the "Battling Begums", are jailed facing corruption charges.

The release from custody of the two women, who respectively head the country's two largest political parties, could break a political stalemate that has threatened to derail planning for December national elections.

Dhaka University political science professor Ataur Rahman describes the possible move as face-saving for the caretaker government and the major political forces.

"Its face-saving because these [corruption] cases, if you take it rigorously in the court of law there may be some punishment," he said. "Ideally many people thought that would happen. At the same time, the hold of these two ladies in politics of the country was so overwhelming it was not possible. In any case they would stay in Bangladesh, so they would still carry their strength."

But former Prime Minister Zia appears to be in no mood to leave. Media reports quote her during a court appearance Sunday as saying she is not going anywhere because there are good physicians available in Bangladesh to treat her.

Her rival, former Prime Minister Hasina, appears more flexible. Family members and her lawyers say she would go to Europe or the United States for treatment if allowed to leave the country.

The two political leaders were arrested as part of the military-backed interim government's sweeping crackdown on graft. The authorities say such a move was necessary to rid Bangladesh of rampant corruption before elections can be held.

Officials have not disclosed what ailments would compel overseas medical treatment. Hasina has a damaged ear resulting from a bombing attack targeted at her four years ago. She has also had fluctuating blood pressure. Zia is believed to have arthritis.

Hasina is chief of the Awami League. Zia heads the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Clashes on the streets between supporters of the two parties led to upheaval in 2006, prompting the caretaker government, backed by the Army, to impose a state of emergency in January of 2007.

The interim government announced plans to hold nationwide parliamentary elections this December. But the BNP and the Awami League have said they will boycott polling unless their two leaders are freed.

 

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