M A I N   N E W S

Talks on to defuse Bangladesh political crisis
Armed forces on alert

President takes oath as caretaker head

Bangladesh’s President Iajuddin Ahmed today took over as head of an interim administration to oversee the general elections due in January.

State television showed Chief Justice J.R. Mudassir Hossain administering the oath of office to President Iajuddin at the presidential palace, Bangabhaban.

The major opposition parties opposed the appointment of President Iajuddin as caretaker head of government. — Reuters

Dhaka, October 29
Bangladeshi President Iajuddin Ahmed consulted feuding party leaders today to try to defuse a mounting crisis over forming a caretaker government to steer the nation through to January general elections.

A deadlock has triggered political clashes that have killed 22 persons and injured hundreds more over the past three days across the impoverished country of 140 million.

The President first intervened yesterday after former Supreme Court Chief Justice KM Hasan backed out of an arrangement to temporarily take the reins after the expiry of Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia’s five-year mandate.

Hasan — who was to take charge of an interim administration to prepare for elections — withdrew just hours before he was due to be sworn in after objections from the Opposition parties who derided the former judge as a government stooge.

“It is best I should stand aside rather than be a hurdle to the political process,” Hasan said in a statement yesterday.

Iajuddin then proposed taking Hasan’s place in a compromise that Khaleda’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) appeared to favour but the main Opposition Awami League rejected.

Meanwhile, three persons were killed in street violence today, the police said. These deaths raise the toll of those killed in the fierce street battles that have been raging since Friday to 22.

“We are still facing a dangerously turbulent situation,” said one police officer. “Anything may happen any time.” Thousands of protesters, carrying sticks and chanting slogans, gathered in central Dhaka today for a rally.

Protesters also blocked roads, burned vehicles and attacked the homes and offices of politicians, police and witnesses said.

The Army, navy and air force chiefs met Khaleda today, fuelling speculation a state of emergency could be declared.

“This may be just a farewell call, as the PM is about to formally step down,” one official said. “On the other hand, maybe they have discussed the prevailing situation and possible way out, let’s say a state of emergency.”

Other sources said the armed forces have been put on alert to act at short notice to prevent a worsening of violence if the president takes charge of the interim administration. “Use of force is often necessary to protect law and order,” Khaleda’s son and first joint secretary-general of BNP Tareque Rahman said. “So we all should be prepared to resist and overpower the law breakers and anarchists.”

President Iajuddin summoned the leaders of BNP, Awami League and two smaller parties - BNP’s ally Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jatiya Party of former military ruler Hossain Mohammad Ershad to discuss the prevailing political issues.

The BNP and Jamaat have already endorsed plans to make Iajuddin the caretaker head of the government. Jatiya leaders said they believed the President would do what is best. But Opposition leaders said they could not accept the president as caretaker head of the government.

“I can smell a conspiracy in the attempts to put the country’s president in charge of the interim government,” Opposition Awami party leader Sheikh Hasina told reporters.

Under the constitution, once Hasan declines to take over as caretaker head of the government the position should be offered to his immediate predecessor as chief justice, providing the former justice is not older than 72.

Legal experts say the President can head a caretaker government only if no retired chief justice - or non-political, non-partisan figure acceptable to all parties - is available.

Two other former Chief Justices - Mahmudul Amin Chowdhury and Hamidul Haque - do fit the constitutional criteria. The Opposition has said they have no objection to either of them.

But the ruling BNP and its allies are believed to object to the former justices, officials monitoring the transition said.

The southern port of Chittagong remained idle as the Opposition enforced an indefinite strike there. The strike is hitting the country’s $ 8 billion a year garment export business, said S M Fazlul Haque, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. - Reuters



India wants free, fair elections in Bangladesh
Rajeev Sharma
Tribune News Service

New Delhi, October 29
The swearing in of Bangladesh’s President Iajuddin Ahmed this evening as head of an interim administration to oversee elections may well be the beginning of a new phase of political turbulence to rock the South Asian country.

Key Indian officials feel that New Delhi mandarins will have to keep their fingers crossed as the political crisis in Bangladesh is far from over. Not yet. A major point of concern for India is the fact that Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League (AL), which is spearheading a 14-party Opposition alliance, boycotted Mr Ahmed’s swearing in.

The US Ambassador in Dhaka, Ms Patricia A Butenis, early this month said the elections without the AL will not be credible to Washington. The boycott clearly signifies the AL’s disapproval of Mr Ahmed’s taking over as interim head of the government

The Ministry of External issued a three-sentence statement on the Bangladesh situation as follows: “The Government of India is closely watching developments in Bangladesh. As a friendly neighbour, we are naturally interested in Bangladesh remaining peaceful and stable. It is our hope that the people of Bangladesh will be allowed to exercise their right to choose their own government in a free and fair manner in the forthcoming elections in accordance with their Constitution.” The statement was issued hours before the swearing in of Mr Ahmed.

At least 18 persons have been killed in political violence in Bangladesh in past three days. The violence has erupted in the wake of Bangladesh’s unique system of government, since 1996, which requires an administration at the end of its five-year term to hand over power to an unelected interim government charged with organising an election within 90 days.

Begum Khaleda Zia completed her five-year tenure on October 27. Her Bangladesh National Party (BNP) has held as many as six rounds of talks with the opposition AL over the issue of caretaker government and electoral reforms, but the impasse continues.

The reforms were necessitated as the man Justice K.M. Hasan, who would be the chief of the neutral caretaker government in line with the country’s constitution, was once a leader of the BNP. More than a fortnight ago, Mr Hasan made himself more controversial as he visited a shrine in eastern Comilla town being surrounded by BNP leaders and workers.

Chief Election Commissioner Justice Abdul Aziz, also made himself controversial by updating the existing voter list, defying a Bangladesh High Court ruling. The fresh voter list omitted names of thousands of eligible voters.

The 14-party combine leaders, led by Sheikh Hasina, have maintained that in such a situation, they would neither join the elections nor allow the government to hold the elections.

President Ahmed had to be roped in by Begum Zia as the Awami League opposed the appointment of government nominee Justice K.M. Hasan as adviser to the caretaker government on the ground that a former party member could not become an adviser to the caretaker government.

In Bangladesh, general elections are being held under a neutral caretaker government since 1996 under the provision of the constitution. The caretaker government conducts the general election within three months.



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