Protesting lawyers are hit by police water cannon in front of the main gate of the Supreme Court in Dhaka
Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital, was effectively locked down on Sunday as security forces arrested hundreds of opposition activists ahead of a rally against the conduct of the country’s forthcoming national elections in January.
A 21-year-old student was killed in clashes with police on Sunday morning, and a security guard died after being hit by explosives thrown by protesters near a central railway station.
Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League party has pledged to press on with plans to hold the poll on January 5, despite a boycott from the BNP and criticism from both the US and the EU over the one-sided nature of the polls.
The opposition’s planned mass rally follows a series of violent blockades and strikes in which about 150 people have died since October, creating a growing sense of crisis in the politically divided south Asian nation.
Last Thursday, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the prime minister, sent troops to keep order across the country as fears rose that Bangladesh could slide into a period of renewed violence and bloodshed.
Khaleda Zia, leader of the BNP, has been unable to leave her home in advance of Sunday’s rally, with an estimated 100 police preventing supporters leaving or entering her residence in Dhaka.
“She is under virtual house arrest,” said Shamsher M Chowdhury, BNP vice-president. “No one is allowed in or out.”
Police maintained roadblocks around the city and on major transport routes into the capital as part of what opposition figures described as an attempt to curtail access to the rally, although one officer guarding Ms Zia’s house claimed the forces had been deployed to offer the opposition leader “protection [against] miscreants”.
Sunday’s protest was called following the government’s decision to scrap a constitutional rule allowing a neutral caretaker government to take over in advance any national election.
The move was met with international criticism, with both the US and EU refusing to send observers to monitor the elections, after it became clear that the opposition’s boycott will leave 154 of 300 seats uncontested, raising doubts about the credibility of any legislature elected in January.
Although the constitutional amendment was introduced legally, it has also proven to be unpopular with domestic voters, with recent opinion polls suggesting that the BNP now holds a commanding lead in any future head-to-head vote.
Usually sympathetic civil society groups have also condemned Sheikh Hasina’s handling of the polls. “This election will not bring any good result to the country, rather will deepen the crisis,” noted leading economist Rehman Sobhan.
Sheikh Hasina has repeatedly blamed the country’s slide into violence on her opponents, however, criticising both their poll boycott, repeated strikes and protests, and links to Islamist groups. “It is the BNP’s fault,” she said last week.