By Ahammad Foyez
Four activists from Bangladesh’s main opposition party have died in prison in recent days, BNP officials said Friday, while more than 20,000 members have been arrested and locked up since late October during the run-up to national polls.
The Bangladesh Nationalist Party on Oct. 28 stepped up its program of anti-government street protests and launched a transportation blockade in an effort to force the Awami League-led government to step aside for a neutral caretaker administration to oversee the general election, set for Jan. 7.
The demonstrations disintegrated into violence but have largely subsided after the government arrested tens of thousands of activists from the party, BNP officials said. However, sporadic reports of the torching of buses and trucks continue to emerge.
Since Oct. 28, at least 13 people from the BNP side were killed in clashes in the streets during the protests or in officer-involved shootings or altercations with police and supporters of the ruling party, according to BNP sources.
“Of those who died, some died in police firing, while some bodies were found after police raids. Some others died due to torture in prisons,” said Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, a senior party figure.
He described the conditions in cramped jails as “inhumane.”
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal rejected the allegations that any BNP activists had died in custody because of foul play or while under physical duress.
“No person is tortured in jail. Those who fall ill are treated according to proper guidelines,” he told BenarNews. “BNP makes various complaints only to get political advantages.”
The BNP was holding mass street protests throughout the year before late October when it launched its program to shut down Bangladesh’s public transportation system and highways.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her party have refused to give in to the BNP’s demands that it resign and make way for a caretaker government. Meanwhile, the BNP is set to boycott next month’s election in which Hasina looks poised to clinch a fourth consecutive term.
The last two elections under Hasina were controversial. In 2014, the BNP and its allied parties boycotted national polls, resulting in the ruling party winning more than half of the parliamentary seats uncontested.
Despite the BNP’s participation in the 2018 election, the ruling Awami League and its allies secured more than 95% of the parliamentary constituencies amid widespread reports of fraud and intimidation.
Bangladesh’s prisons have traditionally been overcrowded.
According to the most recent government data from September, the nation’s 68 prisons hold 77,203 inmates – approximately double their intended capacity.
In a prison in the northeastern city of Rajshahi, authorities confirmed the death of A.K. Azad Sohail, 35, on Thursday, who had been imprisoned since Nov. 18.
Shamim Reza, his elder brother, told BenarNews, “Sohail was granted bail by a Natore court on Nov. 30. When I went to the prison with the court’s order, my brother was not there because he had been transferred to a hospital.”
“I found him seriously ill at the hospital. But when they arrested him, he was a healthy person,” he said.
Sohail died eight days later.
Mushfiqur Rahman, a prison official, told BenarNews that Sohail had suffered a stroke on the evening of Nov. 29 and was first taken to a local hospital before being transferred to a major hospital in Rajshahi city, where he was pronounced dead.
On Dec. 1, Asaduzzaman Hira Khan, a BNP activist from Gazipur, died in Kashimpur Central Jail, one of the country’s largest high-security correctional facilities.
Amirul Islam, a warden, told BenarNews that Khan had been transferred to a hospital in the morning when he reported having chest pain. A doctor pronounced him dead hours later.
Three days earlier, another inmate, Golapur Rahman, 63, had died under similar circumstances at the same facility. Rahman, a BNP activist from Chittagong, had been in prison since Oct. 28.
On Nov. 30, Imtiaz Ahmed Bulbul, an activist from Dhaka, died six days after he was sent to the prison in Gazipur.
Bulbul also fell sick and was declared dead when he was transferred to a hospital, according to Rizvi, the senior BNP official.
Faruq Faisel, who heads the rights group Ain-O-Salish Kendra in Dhaka, called the in-custody deaths “worrying.”
“It is the government’s responsibility to provide those in prison with treatment properly,” he said.
“The government cannot escape responsibility for these deaths.”
“The government is not only … keeping the opposition members in jail but is creating a culture of fear through extreme repression,” he added.