The two senior leaders from Bangladesh’s main opposition party have been arrested by police, a day before a planned rally to call for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s resignation over soaring fuel prices and the rising cost of living.
Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, the general secretary of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and Mirza Abbas, a former minister and member of the party’s top decision-making body, were taken from their homes at about 3am on Friday (19:00 GMT Thursday), Zahiruddin Swapan, head of the BNP’s media wing, told AFP.
“They were plainclothes policemen. Alamgir knew their identity. They told him he was being taken away on the order of the high command,” Swapan said, adding the party did not know where the two had been taken.
Dhaka Metropolitan Police spokesman Faruq Ahmed said the pair had been arrested on suspicion of instigating violence and obstructing government work during Wednesday’s clashes.
The protesters are demanding Prime Minister Hasina step down in favour of new elections under a caretaker government. General elections are not due until the end of next year.
Friday’s police action came two days after security forces in the capital Dhaka fired rubber bullets and tear gas into a crowd of thousands of BNP supporters preparing for the December 10 rally, leaving at least one dead and dozens wounded.
Swapan said police had arrested “around 2,000” party activists and supporters in a bid to scuttle the rally planned for Saturday.
However, Dhaka police gave a lower figure and said they had arrested 500 BNP activists on three separate charges, including assaulting police during clashes near the party’s central office on Wednesday.
According to local media, police also filed a case against 200 BNP leaders and activists on charges of crude bomb blasts at a school ground in the southern coastal district of Babuganj.
Planned rally in Golapbag
Tensions have been high in the capital in advance of the rally, which the BNP said would draw hundreds of thousands of supporters from all over the country.
Police have insisted they will not allow a demonstration in front of the party office, which they called a “crime scene” after saying they had found Molotov cocktails at the location.
Local media said checkpoints had been set up on routes into the city to stop opposition activists coming from the rural heartlands to join the protest.
But a defiant Alamgir on Thursday told a news briefing that the party planned to push forward with the event.
Police granted the opposition party permission to hold a public gathering at Golapbag ground in the capital city, rejecting the BNP’s demand to hold a mass rally in front of its central office in Naya Paltan.
“I urge all our [BNP] leaders and activists, as well as other parties interested in supporting us in the anti-government movement, to attend Saturday’s rally at Golapbag,” BNP central leader Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain said at a news conference.
The country’s The Daily Star outlet said police imposed 26 conditions on the party to hold the rally.
The BNP, along with the majority of other political parties and civil societies, has urged the government to reinstate the three-month non-political caretaker government system in preparation for the December 2023 national election. The governing Awami League government, however, has rejected the demand, claiming that it would be contrary to the constitution.
Independent observers have said the past two general elections were marred by boycotts and electoral malpractices. The BNP had boycotted the 2014 elections while the 2018 elections were marred by violence and threat of arrest and intimidation of opposition supporters.
Fifteen Western embassies issued a joint statement late on Tuesday calling for the country to allow free expression, peaceful assembly and fair elections, with the UN making a similar declaration a day later.
Amnesty International’s Yamini Mishra said Wednesday’s violence showed that authorities “have very little regard for the sanctity of human life and sends a chilling message that those who dare to exercise their human rights will face dire consequences”.