Bangladesh police mount hunt for 'atheist' writer

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POLICE in Bangladesh are hunting for a controversial feminist and writer, Taslima Nasreen, who went into hiding on Saturday after a warrant was issued for her arrest for blasphemy against Islam.

Ms Nasreen, 31, vowed that she would never wear a veil, but that is perhaps the disguise she is using to elude capture. Security forces were put on alert at international airports in Dhaka, Chittagong and Sylhet and at border crossings to stop her possible escape.

She faces up to two years of imprisonment with hard labour for 'deliberately and maliciously outraging the religious feelings of Muslims'. Interviewed by an Indian newspaper last month, Ms Nasreen was quoted as saying that the Koran was out of date.

Islamic militants had called for her execution by hanging, and thousands of Bangladeshi Muslims poured through the streets of Dhaka for five consecutive days last month shouting 'death to the atheist' and 'the hangman's rope is ready for Nasreen'. Earlier, a fundamentalist group had issued a fatwa - an Islamic death warrant - and promised a reward of about pounds 750 for her killing.

Ms Nasreen slipped out of her flat in the centre of Dhaka on Saturday after a court ordered her arrest. She has not been seen since. Several policeman were standing guard outside her apartment block against a possible assassin, but she apparently was not prevented from leaving the building.

Seven political parties, including the main opposition group, the Awami League, called on the government yesterday to lift the arrest order against Ms Nasreen. Critics of the Prime Minister, Begum Khaled Zia, accused her of crumpling under the Islamic radical parties, which are a minority but stridently vocal.

Many Bangladeshi intellectuals privately disagree with Ms Nasreen's literary commando tactics and her craving for publicity, but nearly all defend her.