DHAKA (AFP) — Police in Bangladesh arrested former prime minister Khaleda Zia on Monday as part of a major campaign against corruption launched by the country's army-backed government.
Zia, 63, and her younger son Arafat Rahman Coco were taken from their Dhaka home to court and remanded in custody pending an investigation by the government's anti-graft body, officials said.
They were the latest of some 150 high-profile figures to be hauled in by the authorities.
"Her lawyer pleaded for bail for Zia and son. But the court refused bail and sent her to jail. It also remanded her son to seven days in police custody," deputy commissioner Shahidul Haq Bhuiyan said.
"She has been sent to a special jail" at a parliament building complex close to another special prison where her bitter rival Sheikh Hasina Wajed, another former prime minister, is being held, he added.
Bangladesh has been ruled under a state of emergency by a military-backed interim government since January, when elections were cancelled.
The polls were scrapped due to months of violence over vote-rigging allegations made by Sheikh Hasina's Awami League party against Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
The two women have also been blamed for 16 years of misrule during which corruption became rampant in Bangladesh. The government has vowed to clean up the country's politics before holding new elections by the end of 2008.
Bangladesh's anti-graft commission filed its first case against Zia, who ruled the country twice between 1991-96 and 2001-2006, late Sunday.
She and her younger son are alleged to have illegally influenced the selection of an operator for two state-run container depots, costing the government some 10 billion taka (145 million dollars).
Her eldest son and heir apparent Tareque Rahman was detained in April over separate extortion charges.
A large contingent of police surrounded Zia's house in Dhaka early Monday morning. Zia, who was dressed in a white sari, looked calm and waved to a crowd as she was led to court amid heavy security.
"She told the court that the case was fabricated, motivated, conspiratorial and fictitious. It is aimed at forcing her out of politics. She said she would come back more stronger," said one of her lawyers, Abdul Wadud Khandaker.
But Information Minister Mainul Hosein insisted the government's anti-graft body was "neutral in pursuing corruption cases."
The government would also consider easing restrictions on political gatherings, Hosein added, since the leaders of the two main parties have been detained.
Late Monday, the Bangladeshi foreign minister Iftekhar Chowdhury also denied any political link to Zia's arrest.
Speaking at a joint news conference with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow, Chowdury said: "The prosecutor has taken some actions.... The government has nothing to do with this arrest. The government will ensure and has to ensure that the process of law is followed in each case."
But analysts said the latest arrests had dealt another blow to Bangladesh's traditional political hierarchy.
"It is perhaps the end of the dynastic political process in Bangladesh," Dhaka university political science professor Ataur Rahman said.
"I don't foresee chances of their (Zia and Shiekh Hasina) coming back to politics any time in the near future."
At least a dozen former ministers, their spouses and lawmakers have been tried in fast-track courts set up at the parliament building. They have been sentenced to between five and 32 years in jail for corruption.
Law professor Asif Nazrul said it was "almost certain" that the two women will be barred from contesting the next election.
The latest arrest "will have a huge impact on the politics of Bangladesh in the near future," Nazrul of Dhaka University said.
Political analyst Badruddin Omar, however, warned that arrests of the so-called "battling Begums" could prompt further unrest like last month's violent student protests, when a curfew was imposed for a week in six cities.
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