Bangladesh Arrests Thousands of Political Activists Ahead of Opposition Protest

Police in Bangladesh killed one person and wounded more than 60 people Wednesday in Dhaka when they fired upon activists and members of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the largest opposition party of the country, according to reports in Dhaka newspapers.

The situation across the country is volatile as BNP gears up for a major political protest in Dhaka on Saturday. Police have arrested thousands of BNP activists in a crackdown in the past month. More than 1,300 of them were arrested Tuesday, according to a statement from the police. On Wednesday, BNP Senior Joint Secretary General Ruhul Kabir Rizvi was arrested, along with 300 other party leaders and activists.

Thousands of BNP activists were standing in front of the party headquarters Wednesday afternoon when police opened fire with live ammunition, pellets, rubber bullets and tear gas. The activists retaliated by throwing bricks and stones at the police, witnesses reported.

“Saturday’s rally is to be massive, and our party activists began gathering in front of the BNP headquarters this morning in preparation of Saturday’s protest rally when police attacked them,” Mohammad Arifur Rahman Tushar, a BNP leader who was present, told VOA. “It was a peaceful gathering. Some activists were chanting slogans in support of the BNP, when police began firing upon them without any provocation from our side.”

Unidentified police officers told reporters working for two Dhaka newspapers, however, the BNP protesters attacked the police first, triggering the police action “to disperse” them.

BNP leaders and other political observers estimate at least 1 million people will attend the Saturday rally if the government and ruling party activists do not try to curtail participation. They say BNP activists and supporters are planning to come from different districts of the country to join the protest in Dhaka.

Bangladesh is expected to hold national elections next year. The protest is part of the opposition’s demand for a non-political, neutral caretaker government before the election.

During the national election in 2018, opposition leaders accused Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s ruling party of rigging the election, an accusation the party denied.

For the past few months, the United States and other countries have urged the Hasina government to hold the next election in a free and fair manner. However, opposition leaders say the Bangladesh government has begun cracking down on dissidents similar to what they had done before as elections approached.

Since September, at least seven BNP activists have been shot dead by police in Bangladesh while they were holding peaceful rallies protesting rising prices and other key issues.

The Bangladesh Internal Security Ministry has not responded to related queries from VOA on the extrajudicial killings of BNP activists.

After BNP announced its plan to hold the Saturday rally in a closed-door meeting with party leaders on October 29, Prime Minister Hasina said that if the BNP resorted to violence in the name of political activities, its cadres would be attacked the way Islamic group Hefajat-e-Islam was handled in the past.

In 2013, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch reported that about 50 protest participants of Hefajat were killed as a result of a violent crackdown by government security forces. 

A spokesperson for Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion, or RAB, a paramilitary police force, said this week the force would be ready to tackle the BNP activists if they do anything “untoward” during the protests.

In the past, the RAB has been accused of human rights abuses, including forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. For its actions, the United States imposed human rights-related sanctions on RAB last year.

Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman, liaison officer of the Hong Kong-based Asian Legal Resource Center, said the core institutions such as the Election Commission, Judiciary, Anti-Corruption Commission, police and the bureaucracy collectively helped the Hasina regime rig the elections and then justify its actions.

“The citizens of Bangladesh do not trust that a credible and fair election can be held in Bangladesh without Sheikh Hasina being removed from the state’s power and while she is in a campaign of perpetual ‘absolute power,'” Ashrafuzzaman told VOA.

“Fearing a people’s uprising in the lead-up to the opposition’s December 10 public rally, the Hasina regime deployed SWAT — which was trained by the U.S. for combating armed terrorists — to disperse the unarmed BNP activists in Dhaka today.”

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