Bangladesh: Violence erupts at election protest

SECURITY forces and opposition activists clashed in Bangladesh’s capital yesterday, leaving at least one person dead, as thousands of police took to the streets to foil a mass rally calling on prime minister Sheikh Hasina to cancel approaching elections.

Supporters of the ruling Bangladesh Awami League beat a BNP lawmaker. Picture: AP
Supporters of the ruling Bangladesh Awami League beat a BNP lawmaker. Picture: AP

Reports said authorities had detained hundreds of people in a crackdown ahead of next weekend’s elections, further deepening the impoverished South Asian nation’s political crisis.

Security officials surrounded the home of Ms Hasina’s rival, former prime minister, Khaleda Zia, in Dhaka’s upmarket Gulshan area, where most foreign embassies are located, and parked sand-laden trucks in an apparent effort to prevent Ms Zia from leaving her home. Police denied that the measures were taken to stop her from joining the rally.

TV video showed an angry Ms Zia outside her home condemning Ms Hasina’s government, and saying, “Stop this.”

Meanwhile, thousands of security forces, mainly police, tried to prevent the activists from demonstrating.

A 21-year-old student was killed in Dhaka’s Malibagh area when security forces fired rubber bullets to disperse the activists, said police official Mozammel Haque. Witnesses said the violence broke out after a group of activists from the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami party began marching in the streets.

Stick-wielding ruling party supporters chased stone-throwing opposition activists on the premises of the Supreme Court. Witnesses said dozens of people were injured in that violence.

Public transportation in Dhaka was suspended, cutting the capital off from the rest of the country. The opposition blamed police for preventing buses and other vehicles from travelling to the city. Traffic was thin on Dhaka’s usually clogged streets, with many people staying home in fear of violence.

Local media reported that more than 650 people had been detained since Friday as part of a nationwide crackdown ahead of the 5 January elections, which the opposition is boycotting. Opposition parties said those detained are their activists, but police said they were taken in on specific charges.

The opposition insists Ms Hasina should resign and hand over power to an independent caretaker to oversee the polls. Ms Hasina has rejected the demand and vowed to go ahead with the elections.

Yesterday’s rally was seen as the last major attempt by the opposition to derail the election, but the protest was unlikely to succeed because of the government’s hard-line approach. More than 150 people have died in political violence in Bangladesh since the crisis intensified in October. The conflict pits an opposition alliance led by Ms Zia’s opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party against Ms Hasina, who accuses Ms Zia of protecting people being tried or convicted of war crimes involving the nation’s 1971 independence war against Pakistan.

Jamaat-e-Islami, the main partner of Ms Zia’s party, wants the government to halt the war crimes trials of its leaders. Ms Zia says the trials initiated by Ms Hasina are politically motivated to weaken the opposition, an allegation the government has denied. Jamaat-e-Islami is banned from taking part in the election.

Many citizens are frustrated by the raging chaos in Bangladesh, which is struggling to overcome poverty, establish democracy and increase per capita income.

“Too much blood has been spilled in these past many weeks. We demand a stop to such bloodletting,” Dhaka’s Daily Star newspaper said in an editorial yesterday.

Businesses have also expressed their concern, saying the conflict is affecting the country’s progress in the manufacturing sector, including a burgeoning garment industry that earns more than £12 billion a year from exports.