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Political unrest in Bangladesh raises alarm

The ruling Awami League is accused of suppressing opposition BNP ahead of a major political rally in capital Dhaka
Two women walk in an empty street in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka amid tight police security ahead of a major political rally by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)

Two women walk in an empty street in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka amid tight police security ahead of a major political rally by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). (Photo: Piyas Biswas)

Published: December 09, 2022 10:47 AM GMT
Updated: December 09, 2022 11:39 AM GMT

A government crackdown on the opposition party ahead of a major rally this weekend leading to deadly political violence in Bangladesh has sparked concerns at home and abroad.

The United Nations (UN) and the United States (US) embassy in the capital Dhaka issued statements to condemn the violence and asked all parties to maintain peace and tolerance.

“I am following events in Bangladesh closely, after concerning reports of attacks and lethal force against peaceful protests since July 2022, causing deaths. Bangladesh authorities must guarantee the right to peaceful assembly and refrain from using excessive force against protesters,” UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Clement Voule tweeted on Dec. 8.

Voule made the comments after at least one person was killed and dozens injured in violence between the supporters of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and police in front of party headquarters in Dhaka. Media reports say police detained about 500 BNP leaders and activists since then.

The clashes came as party leaders and supporters started gathering in Dhaka ahead of a mass political rally on Dec. 10 as part of the BNP’s political mobilization ahead of the national election in January 2023.

The BNP and its allies have refused to join the polls under a partisan government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the ruling Awami League and called for a neutral caretaker administration to oversee the election.  

The opposition alleged that polls under partisan governments in 2014 and 2018 were rigged and demanded Hasina must resign to make way for a non-party government.

Besides, the party said, it aims to highlight public grievances over economic woes and the high price of daily essentials, and for the release of detained party chief and former PM Khaleda Zia.

The leaders of the ruling party, which has been in power since 2009, have vowed to resist the BNP from creating “anarchy” over the issues.

Thousands of police have been deployed across the capital to tighten security, while AL leaders and supporters remain on standby to resist the BNP, media reports say.

Gwyn Lewis, UN Resident Representative in Dhaka, said that it reminded Bangladesh of its commitments in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including freedom of expression, media, and peaceful assembly as a member state of the United Nations.

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. We stand in solidarity with the people of Bangladesh in this regard and are committed as in the past to upholding the values of equal rights, dignity, and freedom for all,” Lewis said in a statement on Dec. 7.

The US and the United Kingdom have issued a warning on the movement of their citizens in the country due to the unrest.

US Ambassador Peter Haas expressed concerns over the political standoff.

"We are concerned about the news of political violence and intimidation in Dhaka. We call on all to respect the rule of law and refrain from violence, harassment, and intimidation,” Haas said.

Amid heightened fear of violence, the number of public transport has dropped on the streets with fewer people going outside.  

The Naya Paltan area in Dhaka, where the BNP office is located, remains sealed off by security forces since the clashes. The area is about one kilometer from the Archbishop’s House.

Sajal Corraya, 29, a local Catholic and businessman said that political violence has become a norm before every election, and it poses dangers for ordinary people like him.

“I have a small business, but I didn't go there today, I didn't open the shop, because when the violence starts, business will be damaged and everyone is afraid for their lives,” Corraya told UCA News.

Foreign Minister Abdul Momen said all people in Bangladesh have the right to speech because it is a free country.

"If you listen to the discussions on YouTube, talk shows, and TV channels … the government has not prevented anyone from speaking. We believe in freedom of speech," the minister said, reported Bangla daily Ajker Patrika.

A senior Catholic priest who is the parish priest in Dhaka decried the excessive use of force by the ruling party.

“If the ruling party continues to suppress the opposition, there will be no democracy and it will become a dictatorial regime. Therefore, democratically the opposition should be allowed to hold their meetings and express their opinion,” the priest told UCA News on condition of anonymity.

The AL and BNP rotated in power since Bangladesh returned to parliamentary democracy in the 1990s after 15-year military rule.

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