Bangladesh Caretaker Government Frees Former PM Hasina

After 11 months behind bars, former Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is free. Her release is seen as a face-saving deal that allows her to go abroad for medical treatment, while ensuring the participation of her political party in planned national elections. VOA correspondent Steve Herman reports from our South Asia Bureau in New Delhi.

Wednesday morning, the head of the caretaker government in Bangladesh, Fakhruddin Ahmed, signed an order releasing former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for eight weeks.

The action breaks a dangerous political stalemate that threatened to derail plans for Bangladesh's return to democracy.

Sheikh Hasina's lawyers and officials of her Awami League party say she will fly to the United States, Thursday, for medical treatment. Former Commerce Minister Tofail Ahmed, a member of the Awami League, says Ms. Hasina will be treated for hearing problems caused by an assassination attack in 2004, when grenade blasts killed more than 20 party officials and workers.

"She lost her hearing power, so she got treatment in America and it was necessary very badly that should get the treatment again in America. The decision has been taken [by the caretaker government] and for that matter she has been released and she's leaving for the U.S.A. for getting treatment," said Tofail Ahmed.

Ahmed spoke from Sheikh Hasina's house, where top Awami League officials gathered to greet her and receive guidance from their leader before her departure.

However, her release does not end her legal troubles. The former prime minister will still be tried, in absentia, on corruption and other charges.

Her supporters say the cases are politically motivated to neutralize the Awami League leader. Most of her family was killed in a 1975 coup, including her father, Sheikh Mujibar Rahman, who was the country's first leader after independence from Pakistan.

Hasina's rival, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, the head of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, remains in jail on graft charges. She has refused a similar deal to go abroad for medical treatment, calling it a political trap. But she has asked that her jailed sons be released.

Officials in both parties acknowledge that the interim government might be planning to block any return to Bangladesh of either of the two powerful women - known as the "battling Begums" - once they go abroad.

The Awami League and the BNP have said they would not participate in planned national elections for parliament this December, if their leaders remained jailed.

The two rivals are widely blamed for the political upheaval, two years ago, which led to the imposition of a state of emergency and a caretaker government assuming power, with the backing of the army.

Steve Herman

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

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