Thousands of party activists in Bangladesh have been hit with “fake” charges of violence in a widespread crackdown by authorities, the opposition has said, as a prominent human rights group expressed concerns.
Opponents of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina – whose government faces a general election next year and is accused of rights abuses – have held protests across the country in recent months over power cuts.
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They are also demanding the polls should be held under a neutral, caretaker government.
Some of the demonstrations were marred by violence.
Sairul Kabir Khan, a spokesman for the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), said that since August 22, police had charged at least 4,081 named party supporters and leaders in what he called trumped-up or “fake” charges related to the violence.
Another 20,000 unidentified BNP supporters had also been charged, he added – a tactic that rights activists say gives police sweeping power to harass any opposition supporters who may or may not have attended a rally.
Five activists have been killed and more than 2,000 injured at the protests, Khan told AFP news agency.
Police had not intervened when BNP rallies came under violent attack, mostly by stick-wielding activists of the ruling Awami League party, but “if we retaliate, then they start reacting”, he said.
“The police are not a neutral force,” Khan added.
Police say four people have died in at least three protests but accused the opposition of triggering the violence.
Khan’s comments came as New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Monday raised concerns over “mass arrests and police raids of opposition party members’ homes”.
“While police have carried out mass arrests of opposition supporters, those affiliated with the ruling party appear to have impunity for violent attacks,” it said.
Meenakshi Ganguly, HRW’s South Asia director, said this set “an ominous tone for the upcoming parliamentary elections”, which are set for December 2023.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency over the telephone, Bangladesh’s Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan called the HRW report “100 percent political propaganda”.
“Our human rights situation is far better than many other countries,” he said.
Khan said no opposition political party leaders and activists were victims of oppression by the government.
Last December, the United States slapped sanctions on seven top Bangladeshi security officers and the elite anti-terrorism force, the Rapid Action Battalion, over its role in hundreds of enforced disappearances and thousands of extrajudicial killings.
Dhaka denies it was behind any enforced disappearance of opposition supporters and leaders, and says many criminals were killed during gunfights with officers.
The government, which has been in power since 2009, has largely defied the US measures and last month promoted one of the sanctioned officers to the national police chief.
Bangladesh’s police spokesman, Monzur Rahman, denied that officers were targeting opposition activists, saying the force “respects the rights of every citizen in the country” and intervened only “to maintain the law and order situation”.