By Ahammad Foyez
Bangladesh has arrested two senior opposition party leaders ahead of a huge anti-government rally in the nation’s capital Saturday and after political violence that drew a rare high-profile statement from the White House.
In a tense build-up to the rally, which is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of people, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party staged weekly mass protests in cities around the country demanding that the Awami League government step down ahead of the next general election to ensure it is fair.
Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, the party’s secretary general who was slated as the chief speaker at the rally, and Mirza Abbas, a member of BNP’s apex standing committee tasked with organizing the gathering, were picked up from their houses by police detectives early on Friday morning.
Authorities allege that the BNP leaders instigated street violence on Wednesday, but officials with the party alleged that the police attacked its supporters “without provocation” outside the BNP’s national headquarters, leaving at least one man dead and about a 100 injured. According to the police, 45 officers were injured in the clashes with BNP activists.
“We asked the metropolitan judge, Mohammad Jashim, to allow us to keep these two BNP leaders under custody as investigations were pending,” said Toriqul Islam, an inspector with the police’s detective branch. “He has granted our plea.”
Meanwhile in Washington on Friday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby called on “all parties in Bangladesh to respect the rule of law, to refrain from violence.”
“We want to see them refrain from harassment, intimidation, and we call on the government to ensure that no party or candidate threatens, incites or conducts violence against any other party,” the Reuters news service quoted him as telling reporters.
The U.S. was also urging Bangladesh to “fully investigate reports of violence in a thorough, transparent and impartial manner,” Kirby said, adding that it was monitoring developments in Bangladesh “very, very closely.”
In Wednesday’s violence, tensions boiled over stemming from a standoff over the venue for Saturday’s rally: BNP was adamant about holding it outside its main office located along a busy street in Dhaka, while the government insisted on alternative venues in the capital.
Both sides have now agreed that the rally will take place at a sports field, where BNP supporters began to flock overnight.
Police installed checkpoints at entry points to Dhaka and the site of the rally. Hundreds of thousands of people have already entered the capital, according to local media reports, which cited cellular tower data.
“BNP is prepared to hold the mass rally in Dhaka under any circumstances. The venue has already been filled with people,” said Iqbal Hasan Mahmud Tuku, a senior BNP leader. “We hope that ordinary people in Dhaka will show a ‘red card’ to the government.”
With BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia under de facto house arrest and her son and heir Tarique Rahman in exile in the United Kingdom, the party has been gearing up for this rally as a final push to make its case for an election under a non-partisan interim government.
Zia’s bitter foe, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party, have ruled Bangladesh since 2009. They are refusing to give in to BNP’s main demand of allowing a neutral caretaker administration to oversee the next election, due in December 2023 or January 2024.
Two subsequent general elections since 2009, when the Awami League returned to power, have been controversial.
In 2014, opposition parties boycotted the polls as a protest over the Awami government’s decision to repeal a provision for a non-partisan caretaker government that was written into the constitution as a safeguard for freer and fairer elections.
The boycott allowed the Awami League to remain in power uncontested.
In 2018, the opposition reversed course to participate in the election, but the ruling coalition candidates secured 96 percent of the seats and more than 80 percent of the votes cast amid widespread allegations of rigging and violence.
Human rights groups say Hasina has solidified her authoritarian rule through brute force from security forces under her watch, who have been accused of carrying out thousands of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearance, many of these targeting political opponents.
BNP’s planned rally in Dhaka also coincides with Human Rights Day and the one-year anniversary of sanctions imposed by the U.S. government on several commanders of the Rapid Action Battalion, an elite paramilitary police unit. The move by Washington has strained bilateral ties.
In recent weeks, the United States and other donor nations have expressed concern over the climate of political violence and intimidation in Bangladesh. On Friday, this drew an unusually sharp rebuke from the Awami League’s general secretary, Obaidul Quader.
“Do not make unwanted comments or interfere in any issue of Bangladesh,” he warned American Ambassador Peter Haas a day after Washington’s envoy put out a statement expressing concern about reports of intimidation and political violence in Dhaka.
“Election fraud is happening not only in Bangladesh but also in the United States. There is still another party complaining about vote rigging in the U.S.,” Quader said.