Bangladesh police have fired rubber bullets and tear gas at stone-throwing opposition party supporters blocking major roads in the capital Dhaka to demand the prime minister’s resignation.
Supporters of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) on Saturday set fire to buses and exploded petrol bombs, according to police and local media, as they demanded that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina step down and that the next election, expected early next year, be held under a neutral caretaker government.
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The party, in disarray since its leader Khaleda Zia was jailed in 2018 on corruption charges, has held bigger protest rallies in recent months, including one on Friday, drawing tens of thousands of supporters amid anger about the cost of living.
On Saturday, the BNP said dozens of its supporters were injured. Police said at least 20 officers were hurt in the clashes. At least 90 people were arrested, while two senior BNP leaders were taken into police custody and later freed, police said.
Senior BNP leader Abdul Moyeen Khan denounced the police action as an “injustice”.
“Today’s rampant action … only confirmed the autocratic nature of the ruling regime and fully exposes their motives to remain in power through a rigged election,” he told the Reuters news agency, adding that police were seeking to curtail people’s “fundamental right of association”.
Faruq Ahmed, a spokesman for the Dhaka Metropolitan Police, said, “Our force was attacked without any reason. They were only trying to ease the traffic flow.”
“We had to fire tear gas and rubber bullets to control the situation,” he said.
TV footage showed police using batons to beat protesters on the street.
Al Jazeera’s Tanvir Chowdhury, reporting from Dhaka, said tension was palpable in the streets as residents braced for more violence. The governing Awami League party called for a counter-protest on Sunday, while the opposition called for more popular mobilisation on Monday.
“Food prices are spiralling out of control for average people they are not able to buy as they used to so there is a major discontent among the public,” Chowdhury said.
Protesters also accuse the government of staging fraudulent elections in 2014 and 2018.
Cracking down on protests
Western governments and rights groups have criticised the government for cracking down on anti-government protests.
Yasasmin Kaviratne, regional campaigner for South Asia at Amnesty International, said earlier this month that escalating tensions in Bangladesh were “alarming.”
“People should be free to protest and dissent. By muffling their voices, the government is signalling that having different political views is not tolerated within the country,” Kaviratne said, calling on police to “exercise restraint”.
Tanvir Shakil Joy, a member of parliament for the Awami League, rejected accusations of excessive use of force.
“BNP and affiliated parties torched more than seven buses and blocked the highway, then police took action because no political party can violate the movement rights of common people,” he told Al Jazeera.
According to the legislator, the government had expressly forbidden protesters of any affiliation to block the main entry points of the capital.
He said that the two senior BNP leaders were detained preemptively as they “could have been injured” in the protests and were released shortly after.
Prime Minister Hasina, who has maintained tight control since coming to power in 2009, has been accused of authoritarianism, human rights violations, cracking down on free speech and suppressing dissent while jailing her critics.