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After President’s Fall, Quiet Gossip Goes Public

December 29, 1990 GMT

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) _ Confined to a house in a wealthy Dhaka suburb, ousted President Hussain Muhammad Ershad reads poetry and occasionally asks his guards plaintively about weather or politics.

Outside, the capital’s streets and newspapers are full of the gossip that until Ershad’s fall was talked about only in the byways of the bazaars and the private rooms of the country’s rich and would-be powerful people.

The allegations gathered steam and contributed to the outrage that finally forced the 60-year-old ex-general to relinquish power. After two months of protests led by opposition parties and university students, Ershad resigned as president on Dec. 6, eight years after he seized power in a bloodless coup.

Newspapers, including government-owned ones that once carried only laudatory accounts of Ershad’s public deeds, now print saucy stories full of allegations of corruption and clandestine romances.

″Ershad’s girlfriend is in jail,″ blared a headline in the Bengali- language Inqilab the day after Zeenat Mosharaf, wife of a top official in the Ershad government, was arrested along with her husband.

A headline in the English-language Morning Sun said ″Fast Lady and Husband Arrested.″

For the past three years, opposition politicians had been doggedly demanding Ershad’s resignation, accusing him in tedious rhetoric of running a corrupt military dictatorship. But this time, from the bazaars, the campuses and the mosques, come new anti-Ershad slogans.

He has been denounced as an ″emperor″ and a ″womanizer,″ epithets that struck an unsavory tone of opulence and decadence in his impoverished Islamic nation. Eighty percent of Bangladesh’s 110 million people live below the poverty line, which means they can’t afford enough food to meet minimum health requirements.

Just before and after Ershad’s fall from power, teen-age boys dressed up in women’s clothing and paraded through the streets, mockingly claiming to be presidential girlfriends.

With Ershad and his wife, Raushan, under house arrest and expected to stand trial on charges of corruption and abuse of power, the newspapers have gone public with the long-talked-about allegations of shady business deals and love affairs.

Dainik Bangla, a government-owned daily, claimed Ershad and Zeenat Mosharaf used to meet at a guest house owned by the Bangladesh Chemical Industries Corp. Zeenat’s husband, Mosharaf Hossain, was the company’s chairman until 1988 when he was given a job in Ershad’s government as secretary of the Ministry of Industries.

The newspaper claimed Zeenat, who is in her 40s, got a BCIC business deal worth $10.6 million in 1989 without submitting legal tenders.

Another story now making the public rounds concerns Mariam Mumtaz, a Bangladeshi woman who lives in the United States and claims to be ″the second Mrs. Ershad.″

In 1986, Britain’s Observer newspaper quoted Ms. Mumtaz as saying she secretly married Ershad on Aug. 14, 1982, after he forced her to divorce banker Chowdhury Badruddin. Early in 1990, the story surfaced again in the New York Post and London’s Sunday Correspondent.

Ms. Mumtaz was quoted as saying Ershad had concealed $150 million in secret bank accounts in the United States and Switzerland.

Now the stories are being reprinted in local newspapers, along with a photo of Ms. Mumtaz and Ershad holding hands.

Ershad and his relatives have made no public response to the allegations. But a source at the Home Ministry said Ershad has asked government permission to hire a lawyer to respond in court.

″We have got the request for a lawyer from him. It’s under study,″ the source said, speaking on condition he was not identified further. He declined to give any other details.

Ershad presumably is reading some of the newspaper reports, despite his isolation. Some of the 150 guards assigned to watch him said he gets two local newspapers every day.

″He does not talk much to us. But he sometimes comes down to the lawn and usually asks about how politics are shaping up in the country,″ one of the guards said. ″On Friday he was talking about weather.″

The guard said Raushan Ershad rarely leaves her room and spends most of her time watching movies on a video machine.

″But Ershad sometimes behaves in a way that suggests he hates the loneliness. He craves human contacts,″ said another guard, who like the first spoke on condition he not be identified.