August 6, 2007 / 5:54 PM / in 12 years

Rights lawyer appointed for former Bangladesh PM

LONDON (Reuters) - A prominent human rights lawyer defending Bangladesh’s detained former prime minister called her case a “travesty of justice” on Monday and vowed to enlist the United Nations in the fight for her release.

File photo of police officers taking former Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina (2nd R) to a Dhaka court, July 16,2007. REUTERS/Rafiqur Rahman

Payam Akhavan, a Canadian law professor who has helped prosecute war criminals from the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, was named on Monday as international counsel to Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s prime minister from 1996 to 2001.

Hasina, leader of the Awami League, Bangladesh’s biggest political party, has been held in a special jail inside Dhaka’s parliament compound since mid-July, shortly after she returned to the country voluntarily to face extortion charges.

“It is a military coup masquerading as an anti-corruption campaign,” the Iranian-born Akhavan told a news conference in London to announce his appointment.

“(We) hope that the government will appreciate that its human rights violations, its attempt to subvert democracy, will exact a heavy cost,” he said.

Bangladesh is under a state of emergency imposed by the army-backed interim government, which took power in January and immediately launched a crackdown on corruption ahead of elections planned for late next year.

Radwan Siddiq, Hasina’s nephew, told reporters the case against Hasina went beyond allegations of corruption.

“The future of the second largest Muslim country in the world, the future of whether this country will continue to be a democracy is also at stake,” Siddiq said.

Akhavan said the main evidence against Hasina came from a confession by her cousin, who he alleged was “subjected to serious physical and mental abuse”.

He also said he had relayed details of the case to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva and might attend legal proceedings in Bangladesh.

Siddiq praised Hasina’s legal team in Bangladesh for its “courageous job” in domestic courts, but said the family wanted to open a new front and draw more international attention.

Hasina was granted bail last week on charges of extorting money from a local businessman but has not been freed because a second extortion charge was filed against her.

She has denied the charges, saying they are aimed at forcing her out of politics.

More than 170 political figures, including former ministers in both the governments of Hasina and her arch rival, Begum Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh National Party, have been detained for graft and abuse of power.

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