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DateLine Wednesday, 18 April 2007

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Khaleda Zia to go into exile

BANGLADESH: Bangladesh's last prime minister Khaleda Zia is poised to go into exile under pressure from the military-backed government, officials told media Tuesday, in return for her son's release from custody.

Reports in all the main papers said authorities, who have been waging a major crackdown on graft in a bid to clean up the political system, had agreed to free Zia's son Arafat Rahman Coco in exchange for her departure.

He was arrested on Sunday as part of the crackdown and the reports said he was freed overnight in a deal which - if confirmed - would reshape politics in the South Asian country, which is under emergency rule.

Zia, who was prime minister until her five-year term ended in October, has been under virtual house arrest since last week.

The Star newspaper said Zia, who heads the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), "will be leaving the country for Saudi Arabia in a couple of days."

"Initially, she will be leaving with a one-month visa to perform umrah (a pilgrimage) and her permanent residence there will be finalised upon reaching the kingdom of Saudi Arabia," it said, quoting a top government source.

Quoting another highly placed source, the Star said the Saudi government had agreed to host Zia, 61, and her family if she left Bangladesh willingly.

"The message was conveyed to Saudi Arabia through its embassy in Dhaka that she agreed to leave the country," it quoted the source as saying.

Large numbers of journalists gathered at Dhaka's main airport Monday night in anticipation of Zia's departure.

At the heart of the political turmoil was Zia's BNP and the opposition Awami League led by her arch rival Sheikh Hasina Wajed, also a former premier.

Hasina, 60, is currently on holiday in the United States and has already been charged in absentia with extortion and the murder of four political activists last October. Authorities have warned she faces arrest if she dares to return home.

Meanwhile Hasina will return to her country early next week, she said on Monday, dismissing as "false and fake" murder and corruption charges brought against her in Dhaka.

Police charged Hasina and more than 50 others with murder on April 11, in connection to the deaths of 10 people in Dhaka political violence last October.

"Of course, I'll go back. I'll go back to my people," she told Reuters by telephone in Washington, where she was visiting her son and his family.

"All are false and fake cases, I know," Hasina said. She said she would leave Washington for London on Wednesday and intended to depart for Dhaka at the weekend, depending on flights and meetings in Britain.

"They can do whatever they like, but I know my conscience is clear, I haven't done anything wrong, and I haven't committed any crimes," Hasina said.

She said she did not fear detention or physical harm.

"They filed cases and more cases maybe just to punish me," added the 60-year-old leader of the Awami League, one of her country's biggest political parties.

The murder charges filed last week were mostly brought against members of the Awami League and several leaders of the rival Jamaat-e-Islami party.

Police said the murder charges were pressed after months of investigation into two separate cases filed by the rival groups involving the killing of 10 people in Dhaka on Oct. 28.

A 14-party alliance led by the Awami League accused Jamaat of starting the violence resulting in the deaths, while Jamaat, in a separate complaint to police, accused the Awamis.

A court will formally hear the charges on April 22.

Dhaka, Tuesday, AFP, Reuters


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