Sacked Bangladesh minister faces arrest for Haj criticism

Sacked Bangladesh minister faces arrest for Haj criticism

DHAKA - A Bangladesh court ordered the arrest Wednesday of a former minister who was dismissed last week after Islamists staged nationwide protests calling for his prosecution over remarks criticising the annual Muslim Haj pilgrimage.

The Chief Metropolitan Magistrate court in the Bangladesh capital Dhaka issued an arrest warrant for Abdul Latif Siddique for allegedly "wounding religious sentiments" of the country's majority Muslim population, police inspector Aminur Rahman said.

"The arrest warrant has been sent to a police station in his hometown," Rahman told AFP.

Siddique, formerly an influential minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, accompanied her last month on a visit to New York where he spoke out against the Haj pilgrimage as well as against a non-political Islamic group, the Tablig Jamaat.

Local television aired footage of Siddique telling Bangladeshi expatriates in New York that, "I am dead against the Haj and the Tablig Jamaat (a non-political Islamic group)."

"Two million people have gone to Saudi Arabia to perform Haj. Haj is a waste of manpower. Those who perform Haj do not have any productivity," he said in the televised footage.

"They (Haj pilgrims) deduct from the economy, spend a lot of money abroad," he said.

The comments drew immediate fire back home from the hardline Islamist group Hefajat-e-Islam whose leaders called him "an apostate" and set a 24-hour deadline for the government to dismiss him from the cabinet.

Returning home, Hasina who leads a secular government, fired Siddique and also launched a move to strip him of membership in her ruling Awami League party.

If he is loses his party role, Siddique will also automatically lose his seat in parliament.

At a New York rally where Siddique was the lone speaker, TV footage also showed him making critical comments about Hasina's influential son and technology adviser, Sajeeb Wazed Joy.

"Who is Joy? Joy is not part of the government," he declared.

Siddique, who is now believed to be staying in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata, has since appeared to retract his comments about Joy, saying the premier's son represents "the future of the country".

But he has refused to apologise for his comments on the Haj - a pilgrimage he performed in 1998, according to local Bangladeshi dailies.

The arrest warrant means Siddique may have to extend his stay abroad to avoid prosecution or seek exile like author Taslima Nasreen, a self-declared atheist who now lives in India after fleeing Bangladesh in 1994 when one of her novels triggered protests by Islamists who threatened her life.

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