Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been accused of "kowtowing" to hardline Islamists after expressing dislike for a controversial statue that religious radicals want removed from the Supreme Court.
The statue of "lady justice" has ruffled feathers in the Muslim-majority nation, with hardliners staging massive protests in recent weeks against what they say is a Greek god unbefitting Bangladesh.
Protesters want the statue of the blindfolded woman holding scales, said to represent justice, destroyed and replaced with a Koran, despite Bangladesh's secular constitution.
Hasina, who had kept the furore at arms length, broke her silence late Tuesday after inviting top Islamist leaders to her residence where she described the statue as "ridiculous".
"I don’t like it myself. It’s being called a Greek statue, but how did a Greek statue get here?" she said in comments published in online news portal bdnews24.com.
Court officials have defended the statue as a symbol of justice while secular groups expressed dismay that Hasina and the secular ruling party, the Awami League, was seemingly siding with hardliners on the issue.
"The government and Awami League's kowtowing to this type of demand will be suicidal for Bangladesh," Shahriar Kabir, secretary of Bangladesh's leading secular rights group, told AFP.
In a further major concession to Islamists, Hasina also said Tuesday her government would recognise degrees from hardline madrassas, paving the way for millions of religious scholars to qualify for jobs in public and private sectors.
The prime minister made the announcement after meeting Islamist leaders including the head of Hefazat-e-Islam, a fundamentalist group that has called for gender-segregated workplaces and tough blasphemy laws.
Conservative Bangladesh has experienced increasing tensions between hardliners and secularists in recent years, suffering a spate of killings of atheist bloggers, religious minorities and foreigners.
Her policy shift on madrassas has shocked secular groups, who consider it further evidence of creeping Islamisation as hardline elements push for Bangladeshi society to more closely reflect its Muslim traditions.
It comes as Hasina prepares for an early general election later this year, more than 12 months ahead of schedule, with analysts speculating the prime minister could be trying to corner the Islamist-allied centre-right opposition.