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Former Bangladesh Prime Minister Released From Jail

A former prime minister of Bangladesh, jailed for more than a year on corruption charges, is free. Khaleda Zia was released from custody in Dhaka, late Thursday morning. From our South Asia Bureau, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman explains that Khaleda's release brings the country a step closer to holding planned elections intended to restore democratic governance to Bangladesh.

After more than a year in prison, Begum Khaleda Zia, the former prime minister of Bangladesh, has been freed.

She joins another former prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, the rival matriarch of the other major political party, on the outside. Hasina - also facing criminal charges - was paroled three months ago, for medical reasons.

The release of both women is expected to ease the way for Bangladesh, run by an army-supported interim government, to hold a national election in mid-December.

One of Khaleda's lawyers, Mahbub Uddin Khokon, tells VOA News that officials have appealed the court order granting the former prime minister bail, but he does not expect the authorities to prevail.

"Two appeals were filed by the anti-corruption commission and two appeals were filed by the government," he said. "If this order of bail would be repealed, then it would be unprecedented."

On Tuesday, the Bangladesh high court ordered Khaleda released for three months.

The emergency government, installed last January, had hoped to permanently sweep the two former prime ministers - known as "The Battling Begums" - from the political scene. They were among 170 politicians detained as part of a wide-ranging anti-graft drive intended to end endemic political corruption.

Barrister Khokon says, as far as he knows, Khaleda made no deal with officials for her release and that she intends to resume political activity.

"Definitely she will stay in Bangladesh," he said. "And, she's hopeful to contest in the election."

Khaleda heads the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. She was thrust into the political arena following the 1981 assassination of her husband, who was president of the country.

Her primary rival, Awami League leader Hasina, also rose to power as the result of family tragedy. As the eldest child of Bangladesh's founding president, she took the helm of the party after her father - and most of the family - were killed during a 1975 coup.

Releasing the two former prime ministers was seen as the only credible way to ensure the participation of the biggest parties in elections the emergency government has pledged to hold by the year's end to return Bangladesh to democracy.