Bangladesh Set to Free Former Prime Minister

Former prime minister of Bangladesh Sheik Hasina is awaiting release from jail so she can seek medical treatment outside the country. The Awami League matriarch had been facing trial on corruption charges, as part of the caretaker government's sweeping crackdown on graft. From our South Asia Bureau in New Delhi, VOA correspondent Steve Herman reports Hasina is expected to released on parole at any time.

Passports belonging to former Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina have been returned to her lawyer, clearing the way for her release on parole for medical treatment overseas. The move follows rulings by judges in Dhaka on Monday that corruption trials can continue without Hasina's presence.

Hasina, along with her Bangladesh Nationalist Party rival, Khaleda Zia, also a former prime minister, were caught in the dragnet of the army-backed government. Hasina was arrested nearly one year ago and is facing a variety of charges, including murder, extortion and corruption.

The interim government plans to hold nationwide elections for parliament this December. But the Awami League and BNP said they would boycott the elections unless their respective leaders were freed.

Hasina's release is viewed as a way to break the political gridlock, by giving the caretaker ministers and the major political forces a face-saving way out.

The military-supported government would be able to sideline the two former leaders it blames for the political chaos, but still carry out polling that would be recognized as legitimate. And, the two largest parties would be able to contest the elections without the polarizing presence of their matriarchs.

Dhaka University political science Professor Ataur Rahman says it is to Sheikh Hasina's advantage to go abroad.

"She has become more moderate," said Rahman. "Her party is still stronger than the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, she felt, she perceived that. So, she thought it would be more expedient to go and take this option, rather than to languish in the jail for many years."

A similar deal has also been offered to BNP chief Zia. But she has told judges she prefers to have her medical ailments treated locally and that the government's plan to also send her abroad is a political trap.

Professor Rahman says that statement is in character for the two-time prime minister.

"That's part of her ego and also a kind of strength, you can say - political muscle she had over the last 20-plus years," said Rahman.

Zia is said to suffer from arthritis and problems with her knees. Her rival, Hasina, has a number of medical issues, including fluctuating blood pressure, eye trouble and impaired hearing - the latter caused by a grenade explosion four years ago in which 23 of her party members were killed.

A previous government effort to force into exile the two women, known as the "battling Begums" failed.

Bangladesh has been under a state of emergency for a year-and-a-half. A group of interim ministers, supported by the army, are running the country. They say the massive crackdown on corruption, which has netted much of country's political establishment, was essential before the country could be returned to a democratic form of government.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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