Monday Oct 10, 2022
DHAKA: Thousands of party activists in Bangladesh have been hit with "fake" charges of violence in a widespread crackdown by authorities, the opposition said Monday as an international rights group expressed concerns.
Opponents of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina — whose government faces a general election next year and is accused of rights abuses — have held protests across the country in recent months over power cuts and demanding a poll under a neutral caretaker government.
Some of the demonstrations have been marred by violence.
Sairul Kabir Khan, a spokesman for the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), said that since August 22, police had charged at least 4,081 named party supporters and leaders in what he called trumped-up or "fake" cases over the violence.
Another 20,000 unidentified BNP supporters had also been charged, he added — a tactic that rights activists say gives police sweeping power to harass any opposition supporters who may or may not have attended a rally.
Five activists have been killed and more than 2,000 injured at the protests, Khan told AFP.
Police had not intervened when BNP rallies came under violent attack, mostly by stick-wielding ruling Awami League activists, but "if we retaliate, then they start reacting", he said.
"The police are not a neutral force," Khan added.
Police say four people have died in at least three protests, but accused the opposition of triggering the violence.
Khan's comments came as New York-based Human Rights Watch on Monday raised concerns over "mass arrests and police raids of opposition party members' homes".
Meenakshi Ganguly, HRW's South Asia director, said this set "an ominous tone for the upcoming parliamentary elections", which are set for December 2023.
Last December the United States slapped sanctions on seven top Bangladeshi security officers and the elite Rapid Action Battalion over their roles in hundreds of enforced disappearances and thousands of extrajudicial killings.
Dhaka denies it was behind any enforced disappearance of opposition supporters and leaders, and says many criminals were killed during gunfights with officers.
The government — which has been in power since 2009 — has largely defied the US measures and last month promoted one of the sanctioned officers to the national police chief.
Bangladesh police spokesman Monzur Rahman denied that officers were targeting opposition activists, saying the force "respects the rights of every citizen in the country" and intervened only "to maintain the law and order situation".