When the head of Bangladesh's military-backed caretaker government Fakhruddin Ahmed spoke with TIME last March, he warned that his anti-corruption drive would not limit itself to nabbing low- and mid-ranking public officials. "If we can successfully prosecute some of the known big offenders, we will not only earn thanks from the people," the former World Bank official said, "but also send strong signals which will work as deterrents against future corruption." On July 16, Ahmed and his backers netted another big fish when police arrested former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for extortion a charge she vigorously denies.
Hasina, who heads the Awami League, the more liberal of Bangladesh's two main political parties, was arrested after a two-and-a-half-hour raid on her Dhaka home by dozens of police and security personnel. An official said that Hasina is being jailed for at least a month on an extortion charge relating to her time in power between 1996 and 2001. The caretaker government has also accused Hasina of involvement in the killings of four political rivals during widespread unrest late last year (an accusation Hasina also denies). It was that violence, which pitted Hasina's supporters against those of outgoing Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party, that brought to power Ahmed and his military backers. Government officials charged with overseeing the election period declared a state of emergency and indefinitely postponed polls planned for late January.
Hasina is just one of many former top government officials caught in the net of Ahmed's anti-corruption campaign. More than 150 senior politicians, public servants and businessmen have been charged so far, including former Prime Minister Zia, who government prosecutors have ordered to appear before a court by late August over tax evasion allegations. Both Hasina and Zia, bitter rivals who have alternated in power over the past decade and a half, complain that the charges are designed to permanently sideline them from political life.
Many ordinary Bangladeshis applauded the anti-corruption drive when it began and love the fact that the former leaders of a country widely perceived as amongst the most corrupt in the world are finally facing justice. But over the past couple of months some Bangladeshis have begun to worry that the caretaker government is throwing its weight around a bit too much. Human Rights organizations inside and outside the country accuse the current government of torture, extra-judicial killings and the mass arrest of as many as 200,000 people. Diplomats and international organizations such as the Commonwealth have called for a swift return to democracy.
Ahmed said today that the arrest of Hasina is proof that no one is above the law. But the arrest and this week's announcement that elections will be held in December 2008, might also be something of an attempt to recapture the honeymoon period the caretaker government enjoyed in its first few months. With a year and a half still to go before the promised elections, there's a lot the caretaker government can do to set Bangladesh on the path to a rosier future. But Bangladeshis now know the country's temporary rulers can also do a lot of damage. Which will it be?