Bangladesh author flees to Sweden

THE controversial Bangladeshi writer, Taslima Nasrin, whose feminist attacks on hidebound Islamic society caused Muslim fundamentalists to put a price on her head, is in hiding in Sweden after slipping out of her country.

From Stockholm, where she arrived yesterday, Ms Nasrin issued a statement saying she had come to Sweden to 'rest and work', and expressing 'heartfelt gratitude' to her supporters. She gave no hint how long she would remain in the country, or whether she intended returning to Bangladesh to face charges of inflaming religious sentiments. 'She is exhausted, and does not plan to make any public appearances for the time being,' Gabriel Gleichmann, head of the Swedish branch of the international Pen organisation, told the Independent. Swedish Pen had invited Ms Nasrin last spring.

Few details have emerged of how Ms Nasrin, a 32-year-old doctor turned writer, managed to escape Islamic radicals who had vowed to prevent her leaving Bangladesh. She is reported to have flown from Dhaka to Bangkok, before going on to Stockholm. A spokesman for the Norwegian Foreign Ministry denied reports in Bangladesh that Oslo had issued a passport for Ms Nasrin, and that she had been accompanied by Norwegian diplomats, but he confirmed that she had been given a tourist visa to visit Norway, where she has been invited to address a writers' conference next month.

The Swedish Foreign Minister, Margaretha af Ugglas, who welcomed Ms Nasrin on her arrival yesterday, said she was also in Sweden on a tourist visa.

''It is not a question of political asylum,' said Ms af Ugglas. 'She has invitations from many other countries. We will see what she decides.' Norway has said it will consider offering her asylum.

The writer, already controversial in Bangladesh for her accusations that male conservatives used Islam to subjugate women, became the target of outrage with the publication last year of her novel Lajja (Shame), which attacks Muslim intolerance of Bangladesh's Hindu minority. It was banned after fundamentalist leaders called mass demonstrations and offered rewards for Ms Nasrin's death, but the campaign against her was revived by an Indian newspaper interview earlier this year which quoted her as saying the Koran should be revised.

Despite denials by Ms Nasrin, fundamentalists used her as a rallying-point to demand a law against blasphemy, punishable by death. Liberals who saw this as part of a wider campaign for a repressive Islamic state accused the government of yielding to bigotry when it charged her under a colonial-era law with offending religious feelings. She went into hiding on 4 June, when a Dhaka court ordered her arrest to answer the charge, and did not emerge until last week, when the court granted her bail.

The Bangladeshi authorities, caught between fundamentalist anger at home and international concern over the threats to Ms Nasrin, were clearly relieved yesterday. 'She was free to go anywhere she liked, and that's what she did,' said the Home Secretary, Azimuddin Ahmed. 'We are greatly relieved if she has really gone,' a foreign ministry official said. 'We had enough of it.'

In theory the writer could be sentenced to two years' hard labour, but no date has been set for her trial, and her lawyers are authorised to represent her at interim hearings. 'They simply want to kick the whole thing into touch,' said a diplomat.

(Photograph omitted)