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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - DHAKA — Weeks of mounting political tension have erupted into protests and bloodshed in Bangladesh, leaving the country on edge ahead of general elections due in January.
Several senior opposition leaders were arrested last Sunday, a day after a massive rally against the government turned violent, resulting in the deaths of at least two opposition supporters.
The rejuvenated main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has intensified protests calling on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to resign.
The BNP and its allies want a neutral interim government ahead of the general elections, arguing that free and fair polls are not possible under Ms Hasina. The government led by her Awami League has rejected this demand.
The BNP rally in the capital Dhaka attracted tens of thousands of people — one of the biggest gatherings seen there in a decade.
But things soon turned violent.
Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas while opposition supporters threw stones and bricks. Some roads in the capital were strewn with exploded sound grenades, tear gas shells and broken glass.
Both sides accuse each other of starting the violence.
"The opposition supporters attacked police, journalists, hospitals, ambulances and the houses of the chief justice and other judges, creating chaos," Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen told the BBC.
The BNP said it was the other way round.
"It was a peaceful and non-violent rally, but the government was baffled by the massive turn out. So, they decided to disrupt the meeting," senior party leader Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury told the BBC.
"The rally was attacked from two sides. It resembled a war zone. So, we had to stop our public meeting midway."
The governing Awami League rejects accusations that their supporters provoked opposition activists taking part in the rally.
A three-day nationwide blockade called by the BNP to protest against the police action began on Tuesday.
Protesters have set fire to buses and clashed with security forces in several places. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse them. Two opposition activists were killed in clashes with police on Tuesday. Most vehicles have stayed off the roads fearing violence.
Political unrest is not uncommon in Bangladesh. Over the years parties have taken to the streets to press their demands, resulting in shutdowns, violence and loss of life.
But in recent years the political divide has been widening and the bitterness growing, with the Awami League midway through a second decade in office and seeking a fourth straight five-year term. The two main parties are in no mood to compromise and the chances of dialogue ahead of the vote appear slim.
The arrested BNP leaders include secretary-general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir who has led the party since its leader, former prime minister Khaleda Zia, was arrested and jailed in a corruption case five years ago.
She's now 78 and under effective house arrest.
Ms Hasina, 76, and Ms Zia, who have dominated Bangladesh politics for more than three decades, are heirs to political dynasties.
Both are bitter rivals — locally described as the "battling Begums". Begum refers to a Muslim woman of high rank.
Ms Hasina came to power for a second time in January 2009 and since then her party has won two more elections, although there have been accusations of widespread vote-rigging.
The political unrest ahead of the election is happening at a time when the country is facing economic hardship, with most voters struggling to cope with the escalating cost of living, especially rising food prices. Inflation was around 9.6% in September.
The country's foreign exchange reserves have also dropped from a record $48bn (£39.49bn) in August 2021 to around $20bn now — not enough for even three months of imports.
Bangladesh was forced to reach out to the International Monetary Fund earlier this year for assistance.
Although big opposition rallies in Bangladesh are not unusual, analysts say they are attracting particularly large crowds due to widespread discontent over rising food costs.
"The economy is on the brink of a disaster and people are suffering. That's why hundreds of thousands of people are joining our rallies despite attempts by the Awami League to stop them by cancelling transport, carrying out arrests and intimidation," Chowdhury told the BBC.
But Ms Hasina, the daughter of the country's founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, points to the sustained economic growth of the country over the past 15 years under her rule.
The arrest of Alamgir, along with hundreds of opposition supporters, after the rally has triggered criticism from rights groups.
"The intensified crackdown on opposition party leaders and protesters over the weekend signals an attempt at a complete clampdown of dissent in Bangladesh ahead of the general elections in January," Amnesty International said.
The Office of the UN Human Rights Commissioner urged the government to show restraint and ensure that human rights were fully upheld for all Bangladeshis.
The government has already been accused of carrying out human rights violations on a large scale.
The BNP alleges that hundreds of its supporters have become victims of enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings carried out by the security forces, some of whom have been sanctioned by the US for their actions.
The Bangladeshi government has flatly denied charges of abuses and killings — but it also severely restricts visits to foreign journalists who want to investigate these allegations.
"Definitely, there is a climate of fear, especially while expressing dissent on any kind of digital forum because the government uses the draconian Digital Security Act [DSA] to imprison people," Shireen Huq, a prominent women's rights activist, told the BBC.
Rights groups say the act has been used to silence critics and stifle free expression. They say more than a thousand court cases have been filed against journalists, politicians and activists since it was enacted in 2018.
Following widespread opposition, including from the UN, the government recently replaced the DSA with a new Cyber Security Act. But activists say the new law still retains repressive measures.
Ms Huq says she has no confidence the government will conduct a free and fair poll in January.
The opposition alleges the same, which is why it is demanding a return to installing a neutral caretaker administration ahead of the vote — a safeguard abolished by parliament in 2011.
Foreign Minister Momen rejects such calls.
"There is no history in any country that the sitting government will step down and allow some non-elected people to run the government. We believe in democracy, therefore that type of demand is not acceptable," he told the BBC.
The BNP has threatened to boycott the January poll if their demand is not met. This tactic hasn't worked in their favour in the past however.
The party's refusal to take part in the December 2014 election helped the Awami League win another landslide.
With hardening positions, Bangladeshis are staring at the possibility of protracted political unrest and possibly more street violence. — BBC
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