By Ahammad Foyez
At least seven people were dead and hundreds of opposition activists were in jail after a weekend of mass demonstrations and strikes gripped Bangladesh, in what analysts described as a dire sign of greater political violence during upcoming polls.
Senior leaders of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party have also gone into hiding and been charged in connection with a police constable’s death during protests on Saturday. The BNP also staged a strike (hartal) on Sunday, which followed counter-street protests by opposition parties and the ruling Awami League on Saturday that disintegrated into deadly violence.
Since then, a top BNP official said party leaders were hiding from police as authorities searched their homes. Among those taken into custody since Saturday was Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, BNP’s secretary general.
“The government is moving forward in an autocratic manner, ignoring all political opinions and arguments. This could have dire consequences for the country’s democracy and economy,” analyst Mahbub Ullah told BenarNews.
“Now the Awami League should play the prime role in solving political problems,” said Ullah, a Dhaka University economist.
The weekend actions by BNP culminated from a series of anti-government protests it had staged throughout the year to demand that Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina and her Awami League government resign to make way for a neutral caretaker administration to oversee a general election expected in January.
Hasina, who has ruled Bangladesh since 2009, so far has refused to give in to BNP’s calls and has pushed back at calls from the U.S. and other Western countries to ensure that the election is free and fair.
After the violence over the weekend, dozens of BNP leaders face charges resulting from the death of the police officer, Agence France-Presse reported.
“At least 164 Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) including Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir were accused of murdering the police officer,” police official Salahuddin Mia said on Sunday, adding that charges had been filed against them.
Most of those charged are BNP leaders who could face the death penalty if convicted, the wire service reported.
From his hideout on Sunday evening, Rizvi announced that BNP, with support of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami and other parties, would begin a three-day country-wide blockade on Tuesday to protest the mass arrests of activists and leaders.
Meanwhile, an analyst raised concerns that minor parties would not participate in the upcoming election.
“[T]he support of almost all political parties, big and small in the country toward the BNP’s strike on Sunday made it clear that they will not participate in this election. In other words, the next election will be one-sided,” Shahdeen Malik, a lawyer and political analyst, told BenarNews.
On Sunday, BNP activists took part in a daylong strike to protest against the violence one day earlier.
The party alleges that police raided the houses of standing committee members Mirza Abbas and Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury, Vice Chairman Abdul Awal Mintoo and Syed Moazzem Hossain Alal, the party’s joint secretary general.
Police in Dhaka reported arresting over 250 on Sunday and 1,800 over the last 10 days – since before the protests. Nearly all those arrested are BNP members.
The first two deaths – a police constable and a BNP activist – were announced Saturday. At least seven people have been killed including a police and a journalist in the political clashes from Saturday to Monday, officials said. On Sunday, authorities reported that a journalist who was covering the protest and an Awami League activist were reported dead on Sunday.
On Monday, authorities reported that a transportation worker was burned to death while sleeping in a bus early Sunday, while a local BNP leader, Zakir Hossain, was found dead outside his home in Dhaka’s Cumilla district the next day.
Zakir was found on the ground near his house and was taken to a hospital where he was declared dead, according to Rizvi, who accused officers of torturing the victim.
“Police raided Zakir’s house on Sunday night to arrest him, but officers left without finding him in the house,” said Jabed ul Islam, inspector-in-charge of the Debpur outpost of the Burichang police station. He denied Rizvi’s allegation.
After Saturday’s violence, the police’s Criminal Investigation Department declared the BNP central office in Dhaka a crime scene. It has been closed since then.
Elsewhere, Obaidul Quader, the Awami League’s general secretary, directed ruling party followers to be vigilant and assist police by saying the opposition could block government projects in the coming days.
He questioned whether the BNP blockade would work as it is losing support.
“Their leaders and workers are leaving the party in frustration,” he said during a meeting at the Awami League central office in Dhaka.
On Monday, thousands of supporters of the Awami League and 13 allies rallied in Dhaka to denounce the violence linked to the BNP protest two days earlier.
Globally, Saturday’s violence has caused concern.
The diplomatic missions of the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, Canada, South Korea and Norway in Bangladesh issued a joint statement speaking out against the violence.
“We call on all stakeholders to exercise restraint, eschew violence and work together to create the conditions for free, fair, participatory and peaceful elections,” the statement said.