Two Bangladeshi opposition leaders arrested during government crackdown

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Two senior leaders of Bangladesh’s main opposition party were arrested in a violent crackdown on government opponents in which at least seven people were killed and thousands arrested.

In recent weeks, Sheikh Hasina’s government has launched a repressive campaign against the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which has organized demonstrations to demand his resignation.

The BNP accused Hasina’s ruling Awami League of corruption, human rights abuses and imposing crippling fuel price hikes. The BNP has organized an anti-government protest rally in the capital, Dhaka, which is expected to be attended by hundreds of thousands of supporters.

The BNP claims its leaders have been framed in fake cases in an attempt to stop the protest. In the early hours of Friday morning, BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir and former BNP minister Mirza Abbas were taken from their homes by police. Dhaka Metropolitan Police spokesman Faruq Ahmed confirmed that the leaders were arrested on charges of inciting violence against the police.

AKM Wahiduzzaman, the leader of the BNP, said, “The government has arrested the two top leaders to keep them away from our Dhaka rally in a conspiracy to sabotage tomorrow’s programme. However, we will not back down from our plan and will hold our scheduled rally in Dhaka tomorrow.”

It followed an incident on Wednesday in which one person was killed and more than 60 were injured after police fired live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas during a BNP protest held outside party offices in Dhaka . More than 400 BNP members and supporters were arrested during the demonstration.

The BNP is calling for Hasina to step down and for new elections to be held under a neutral interim government. Hasina, however, declined and this week announced that the next general election would be held in January 2024.

Wahiduzzaman said seven people have been killed and at least 6,000 BNP supporters have been arrested by authorities in recent weeks as the ruling party tries to contain a wave of opposition in the face of growing unrest over the economy and alleged corruption and abuse.

Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s regional director for South Asia, said there had been an “alarming escalation in the crackdown by the authorities” in recent weeks.

Mishra said police firing live ammunition at protesters “demonstrates that Bangladeshi authorities have little regard for the sanctity of human life and sends a chilling message that those who dare to exercise their human rights will face dire consequences.”

Both the 2014 and 2018 general elections in Bangladesh were marred by allegations of vote-rigging and attacks on the political opposition, the Awami League denies allegations. In recent months, the United Nations, the United States and other countries have repeatedly urged the Bangladesh government to hold free, fair and all-inclusive elections, but the crackdown on the BNP has continued unabated.

Since she came to power in 2009, Hasina’s government has been accused of gross human rights abuses and the undermining of press freedom, with journalists and artists among those subjected to arbitrary detention for criticizing the regime. In December 2021, the United States imposed sanctions on Bangladesh’s Special Security Forces unit, the Rapid Action Battalion, which has been credibly implicated in extrajudicial killings, torture and enforced disappearances.

Several leaders of the Dhaka-based BNP declined to speak to the Guardian for fear of reprisals and arrests ahead of Saturday’s protest.

Related: The world has left Bangladesh to shelter 1 million Rohingya refugees alone, says the minister

Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury, a cabinet minister and leader of the Awami League, said the crackdown allegations “were not true at all”. Chowdhury said police had only fired on protesters after the mob incited violence.

“BNP cadres threaten to destabilize the country by creating chaos and indulging in violence,” he said. “So, against those unruly party activists, law enforcement agencies are taking legally justified actions. They are disobeying the rule of law, so they face legal action.”

Chowdhury has denied all allegations that the government rigged elections or cracked down on media freedom. “The people overwhelmingly voted for our party,” he said.

Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman, of the Hong Kong-based Asian Legal Resource Centre, said Hasina had created a “constitutional, political, socio-economic and rule of law crisis in Bangladesh”.

He accused her of depriving Bangladeshis of their right to the right to vote and that after two allegedly rigged elections, people in Bangladesh were rioting. “After facing extreme forms of repression, ordinary people are already outraged,” she said. “At any moment things can spiral out of control due to the brutal abuse of the state machine against the people. The only option left in Bangladesh is for Sheikh Hasina to step down without delay or face a popular uprising.”

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