Bangladesh opposition leader detained after massive protests ahead of elections

One police officer killed as more than 200,000 protesters took to streets on Saturday

Shweta Sharma
Sunday 29 October 2023 14:57 GMT
<p>People try to douse the fire after a public bus was set on fire during a countrywide strike from dawn to dusk called by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), protesting against alleged police attacks on their Saturday rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh</p>

People try to douse the fire after a public bus was set on fire during a countrywide strike from dawn to dusk called by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), protesting against alleged police attacks on their Saturday rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh

One of Bangladesh’s most senior opposition politicians has been detained after deadly clashes between police and anti-government protesters.

Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, the secretary general of one of the country’s largest opposition parties, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), was taken into custody from his home on Sunday, his wife Rahat Ara Begum said.

It comes after at least one policeman died and dozens of others, including opposition party supporters, were injured as thousands of protesters joined rallies across the capital Dhaka on Saturday to demand the resignation of prime minister Sheikh Hasina and call for the transfer of power to a non-partisan caretaker government to oversee general elections next year.

Mr Alamgir’s party is led by former prime minister Khaleda Zia, Ms Hasina’s main rival. The party denounced his detention. Footage showed Mr Alamgir waving to his supporters as he was driven away in a police vehicle.

“Police came and seized all the CCTV camera devices from our building,” his wife Ms Begum was quoted as saying by The Daily Star newspaper. “They said they had orders to arrest my husband. I hope they return him soon.”

BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir gestures during a rally in Dhaka before his arrest

Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) commissioner Habibur Rahman said Mr Alamgir was taken in for questioning in relation to violence at the protests.

BNP spokesperson Zahiruddin Swapan said more than one million supporters took part in the protests, while the police estimated there were about 200,000 protesters involved.

Faruk Hossain, DMP deputy commissioner in charge of media, said six cases were filed against some 1,300 people being investigated for Saturday’s violence. Local reports said on Sunday that police had raided the homes of several opposition leaders overnight in the capital, Dhaka.

Violence had erupted in Dhaka’s Kakrail area when protesters attacked a bus transporting members of the ruling Awami League to a nearby rally, according to reports. Video footage broadcast on Somoy TV showed a police booth engulfed in flames, damaged vehicles and shattered glass from a nearby building.

Security personnel deployed sound grenades and teargas at the rally location where BNP supporters were loudly voicing anti-government slogans.

“Our rally was peaceful. But the authorities have used excessive force to ruin our rally. They attacked our people mercilessly,” said the BNP spokesperson Mr Swapan.

Home minister Asaduzzaman Khan told reporters that leaders of Ms Zia’s party have to bear responsibility for their “role” in the violence, the United News of Bangladesh agency reported.

BNP chair and two-time former prime minister Ms Zia remains effectively under house arrest despite being released in 2020 having served a prison sentence in a corruption case that her party says was politically motivated. Mr Alamgir has been leading the BNP since Ms Zia was jailed and her son went into exile in the UK.

Ekattor TV station reported that a police hospital was attacked by protesters. Violence had spread in the area and many people had to take cover in nearby alleys.

The opposition said it is attempting a final push to remove Ms Hasina as the election commission prepares to announce Bangladesh’s 12th national election, expected to be held in January. Ms Hasina’s government has been facing questions over alleged irregularities in past elections, something the government denies. The opposition has also accused the government of using a new cybersecurity law to crack down on dissent.

The US has pressured Dhaka to ensure the integrity of elections and imposed visa restrictions in May for individuals from Bangladesh “responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh”.

The US embassy in Dhaka on Saturday said it condemned the political violence and called for calm and restraint from all sides.

“The reported killing of a police officer, a political activist and the burning of a hospital are unacceptable,” the statement said. “As is violence against civilians, including journalists.”

The embassy said it will be reviewing all violent incidents for possible visa restrictions.

The rivalry between Ms Hasina and Ms Zia has been ongoing for decades, and the former’s government has been under pressure for months as the opposition has held largely peaceful anti-government demonstrations.

Ms Hasina hopes to return to power for a fourth consecutive term and says the election should be held under her government’s supervision, as specified in the constitution, amid a warning by the US of possible visa restrictions for disrupting the election process. The visa restriction policy is primarily focused on law enforcement agencies, as well as the ruling and opposition parties.

The prime minister recently told parliament that the US wants to remove her from power at any cost. However, the opposition and critics have welcomed the move by the US which is the largest importer of Bangladesh’s garment products.

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