During the ongoing political strife in Bangladesh, nearly 7,500 opposition activists have been arrested by police and other law enforcement agency officials since the beginning of January.
Although the government claims that the activists were detained for their involvement in “subversive” activities, opposition party leaders denied the allegations while referring to the “mass arrests” as yet another attempt of crackdown on their democratic right to protest.
As the mass protests by the 20-party alliance led by Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is reaching its 19th day, 30 people have been killed and more than 700 injured following arson attacks and skirmishes across the country.
A Deputy Inspector General of the Bangladesh Police told VICE News on Thursday that a total of 7,415 people have been arrested since January 5, when the opposition leader and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia called mass protests across the country.
The protests include a combination of strikes and blockades, a procedure through which communication between the capital and other cities with other parts of the country is virtually cut off by the opposition.
Zia called for the protests against the government after she was prevented from organizing a scheduled rally in Dhaka to mark an anniversary of the January 5, 2014, parliamentary elections as “democracy killing day.”
The 2014 elections were deemed by many Western countries as “not credible” after the main opposition alliance opted out of the polls as their demands of having a neutral caretaker government during the vote did not occur. Violence before and during the polls claimed more than 500 lives across the country.
Soon after the Bangladesh Awami League led-grand alliance of 14 parties regained power following the controversial elections, current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina declared that there will be no parliamentary polls till 2019, leading to the opposition to protest on the streets.
Senior leaders of BNP had told the media that the demonstrations on January 5 were going to be “peaceful.” But Zia was confined in her office by law enforcement agencies between January 3-19. On January 5, during her confinement, Zia called the mass protests.
When she was released Zia appeared in public to declare that the blockade would continue until the government creates a congenial atmosphere for a free, fair election.
Incidents of skirmishes between opposition party activists, law enforcement officials, and ruling party activists have become rampant, as well as arson attacks on both public and private transport.
To tackle the situation, the government has deployed the paramilitary Border Guard Bangladesh alongside the police and other agencies.
“Such attacks and vandalism are not political acts,” Mahbubul Alam Hanif, Joint General Secretary of the ruling Awami League, told VICE News. “As these are subversive and terrorist acts, the law enforcing agencies have a right to arrest these terrorists and take other measures against them.”
‘Our activists cannot even stay at home as their houses are being raided.’
On January 21, social welfare minister Syed Mohsin Ali urged officials to “shoot arsonists on sight” and said that they “need not be tried.”
The government has also taken some unique initiatives to stop the attacks. On January 22, the authorities banned pillion riding on motorcycles, as it was observed that petrol bombs were hurled at buses and cars from speeding motorcycles.
On the same day, the government advised television channels in Bangladesh not to run reports that might “instigate violence and acts of sabotage.”
At the start of this week, the government also blocked the smartphone messaging apps Viber, Whatsapp, LINE, My People, and Tango. They reasoned that the opposition activists were using this technology to coordinate attacks. Access to the apps was reopened on January 22.
BNP sources claimed that they are innocent of arson and other attacks.
“Three thousand activists including senior leaders of the BNP are already behind bars as more than 25,000 cases have been falsely filed against them,” Shyrul Kabir Khan, a Zia press official, told VICE News. He hinted that the total number of arrests is more than 10,000, as activists from the BNP’s other 19 allies are also being arrested.
“Our activists cannot even stay at home as their houses are being raided,” said Khan. “But we will continue our revolution till our demands are met.”
The blockade and ongoing political strife is gravely affecting Bangladesh’s developing economy. During a news conference on January 22, Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industries (DCCI), a top business body, reported the losses inflicted during the past 16 days of blockades were $4.6 billion or nearly 2.7 percent of Bangladesh’s GDP.
As the human and economic losses continue to pile up, the ongoing violence has driven the UN, European Union, and the US to express concern.
The latest was a press statement by Jean Lambert, chair of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with the countries of South Asia, on January 22 who described the situation in Bangladesh as “profoundly disturbing.”
Calling for “maximum restraint”, Lambert urged for “true willingness and responsibility to engage in genuine dialogue in order not to further endanger Bangladesh’s democratic course and development.”
Yet Hanif, of the Awami League, added to VICE News: “There can be no dialogue between the Bangladesh government with terrorists when they are engaged in subversive activities.”