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Full prisons and false charges: Bangladesh opposition faces pre-election crackdown

Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party are seeking a fourth consecutive term and are accused of harassing the rival BNP party

By Hannah Ellis-Petersen

IBangladesh, there is no more room left in the prisons. In the last two weeks alone, almost 10,000 opposition leaders, supporters and activists have been arrested after protests broke out against the ruling government, led by the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina.

Thousands of other political prisoners have already been inside these cells for months, many facing dozens, perhaps hundreds, of criminal charges. Rajshahi central jailhas a capacity of about 4,000 prisoners. It now holds more than 13,600.

As Bangladesh heads to elections in January, with Hasina and her Awami League party seeking a fourth consecutive term in office, the authorities have overseen a ruthless crackdown on the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP). Few believe the election will be free, fair or remotely democratic; the BNP have stated that as long as Hasina is in charge, they will not even participate.

While the harassment of the opposition has been ongoing for months, a BNP rally held in Dhaka on 28 October to demand Hasina’s resignation prompted the government crackdown to intensify further.

In the days leading up to the rally, hundreds of BNP leaders were detained. On the day, as hundreds of thousands of supporters took to the streets, activists from Hasina’s Awami League, accompanied by police, were seen attacking the rallies, armed with sticks, iron rods, machetes and other weapons. At least three people died in the violence, including a BNP activist, a police officer and a journalist.

Ali Riaz, professor of political science at Illinois State University, said the violence appeared premeditated by the authorities as a means to crack down on the BNP.

“The response of the police, which triggered the violence, seemed to be planned well ahead of the rally,” he said. “Internet services were blocked, not only to disrupt communication among the activists but also to prevent live transmission of the police actions.”

“The response of the police, which triggered the violence, seemed to be planned well ahead of the rally,” he said. “Internet services were blocked, not only to disrupt communication among the activists but also to prevent live transmission of the police actions.”

In the aftermath, BNP leaders and rank-and-file members say they have been subjected to a relentless witch-hunt to prevent them campaigning against Hasina’s government.

“The sheer number of arrests of opposition leaders, activists and protesters in Bangladesh in the past few weeks is a good indicator of how extreme the crackdown on dissent has become,” said Angelita Baeyens, vice-president of international advocacy and litigation at the Robert F Kennedy human rights organisation.

Among the thousands who have been arrested was one of the BNP’s most senior leaders, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir. Speaking to the Guardian hours before he was detained on 29 October, he had expressed his fears of being picked up on false charges.

“We have seen countless incidents where our activists were arrested on trumped-up charges, and the police and judiciary seem to be working together with the Awami League to silence us,” said Alamgir, who has more than 100 cases against him. “It is clear that the government’s goal is to put all of our leaders behind bars and hold a one-sided election.”

An endless cycle of arrest and release

The few BNP leaders to have evaded arrest are now in hiding. Habibun Nabi Khan Sohel, the BNP’s joint secretary general, now has more than 450 cases filed against him and is among 170 leaders accused of violence and murder after the 28 October protests. For the past week, he has gone underground.

From an undisclosed location, Sohel described how the past few months of his life had been defined by endless politically motivated cases being filed against him, forcing him in and out of the courts, consuming his life. He faced a similar scenario in the run-up to the 2018 elections – which were also widely documented as rigged to re-elect Hasina in a landslide – when he was found guilty in an allegedly politically motivated case and was prevented from running.

“Since June, I have had to present myself in different courts from morning to evening, in connection with the hearings of five to seven cases every day,” he said. “Many of my senior party colleagues are attending hearings and spending long hours in court every day.”

Others, such as Azizur Rahman Muchabbir, 41, a mid-level BNP leader, are stuck in a Kafkaesque cycle of arrest and release.

He was first arrested on 8 December 2022, after violence broke out in a rally. He was charged with violent activities and granted bail in February, but was rearrested by police outside the prison gates. He was released on bail again in March, and again was immediately rearrested, a cycle that continued again in April. He is now back in jail, facing 70 different charges.

“The government has detained him in jail simply to keep him away from political activities,” said his wife, Suraiya Begum. “We all are victims of harassment and torture.”

Since Hasina was first elected in 2008, she has been credited for overseeing an economic revival in Bangladesh that has seen the country rise to become one of the strongest economies in south Asia. But her four terms in office have also been defined by democratic backsliding and increasingly authoritarian measures against dissent or any form of political opposition.

According to the office of the BNP, since 2009 more than 138,000 cases have been filed against more than 5 million leaders, activists and supporters of the BNP and its member organisations.

Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman of the Capital Punishment Justice Project, who has been documenting human rights abuses in Bangladesh for over a decade, said that “gross human right violations” had systematically been used against the opposition “including enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, maiming, torture, ill-treatment, and massive arbitrary detention of the opposition activists in fake criminal cases to crush the opposition whenever the elections ensued in Bangladesh.”

The previous election in 2018 was marred with allegations of opposition harassment and widespread vote-rigging, and was widely decried as non-democratic. Most now assume that similar scenes will unfold in January.

The international community has been attempting to step in and pressure Hasina into holding free and fair elections. This week the British high commissioner met BNP leaders to call to “eschew violence … and hold free, fair and participatory elections”. The US government recently imposed visa restrictions on unnamed government officials “for undermining the election process” and last month the US ambassador to Bangladesh called for Hasina to have a dialogue with the BNP.

Hasina hit back, accusing the US administration of hypocrisy. “Is Biden having a dialogue with Trump? The day they have a dialogue, I will also have a dialogue with the opposition,” she said.

Analysts say that Hasina’s government now has the judiciary and the police fully under its control, and has weaponised them in her fight against the opposition. This week, a video clip captured police officers patrolling with a group of armed Awami activists chanting “capture BNP people, one by one, and slaughter them all”.

The government and police deny that the mass arrests of the BNP members are connected to the forthcoming elections. “These criminal cases have no connection with politics,” said the law and justice minister, Anisul Huq. Senior Awami League leadership figures did not respond to requests for comment from the Guardian.

Mohammad Faruk Hossain, spokesperson of Dhaka Metropolitan police, said that they had filed cases “only after it is found that they have been involved in criminal activities” and said that the arrests were of those responsible for the killing and injuring of police officers on the 28 October rally.

Yet Mubashar Hasan, a political analyst, said that Hasina’s oppressive methods were only fuelling momentum behind the BNP, which is experiencing a groundswell of grassroots support in the wake of the faltering economy and soaring inflation. As well as political activists, labourers and poorer workers turned out in droves at the 28 October rally.

“The BNP rallies have successfully tapped into the pulse of the common people,” he said. “The government’s heavy-handed crackdown appears to be a calculated move aimed at dissuading BNP’s burgeoning momentum from evolving into a full-blown mass movement against the existing administration.”

Hannah Ellis-Petersen is the Guardian’s south Asia correspondent. Twitter @HannahEP

10 November 2023

Source: theguardian.com

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