Bangladeshi Ex-Premier Is Accused of Extortion

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Sheikh Hasina, a former prime minister of Bangladesh who is on a private visit to the United States, was formally accused in her home country yesterday of extorting $436,000 from an electric power company, an allegation she called "totally absurd."

Speaking by telephone from Jacksonville, Fla., Hasina said that a businessman's complaint to police was made "just to insult me and my party," the Awami League.

An army-backed interim government is exercising emergency powers following weeks of turmoil in the streets, the postponement of national elections and disputes over voting rolls. Military leaders say they want to bring corrupt politicians to justice.

If charges proceed against Hasina, head of the Awami League and daughter of independence hero Mujibur Rahman, she would be the highest-ranking figure to be tried.

The Reuters news agency reported from Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital, that Hasina could face arrest if she returns to Bangladesh. A conviction would carry up to five years in prison.

Hasina said yesterday she was not afraid to return. "I have had to face all those things in the past," she said. "I took risks, and my people are more important to me than my life." She was to fly to Washington later yesterday to visit a son.

In his complaint to police, Bangladeshi entrepreneur Tajul Islam Faruk alleged that Hasina, while prime minister, had demanded that managers of a private power plant in which he had a share pay about $436,000 in installments from 1998 to 2001 and "otherwise threatened to stop the operation of the company."

Hasina, in office from 1996 to 2001, said the lodging of the complaint at this time was suspicious. Her government worked to boost the country's power generation capacity from 1,600 megawatts to 4,600 megawatts and did so by opening that field to the private sector, she said.

In comments last weekend, Hasina called the interim authority headed by former central bank governor Fakhruddin Ahmed "undemocratic and unconstitutional." She said yesterday that his proposed delay of elections for 18 more months to complete a secure voter registration roll was too long in view of the "unpredictable nature of politics" in her country.

Her party, the main opposition to the former elected government, took part in street protests over election arrangements. Sixty-eight of its members were killed by police and Muslim extremists, she said. Hasina said she insisted that the constitution be respected.

She praised the interim authority for some of its work since elections were suspended in January, but cautioned that the military should not use an unelected government to impose its will.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company