Leader 'under house arrest' ahead of Bangladesh poll

Opposition party says police barring anyone from visiting former prime minister after she called for mass rally to block 'farcical' elections

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 December, 2013, 1:24am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 December, 2013, 12:57pm


Bangladesh's opposition accused authorities of placing their leader under virtual house arrest yesterday, as tens of thousands of troops were deployed across the country ahead of elections next month.

Amid growing violence in the build-up to the January 5 election, the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) said police were barring anyone from visiting their leader, Begum Khaleda Zia, at her home in Dhaka. The move comes after Zia, a two-time former premier and arch-rival of current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, called for supporters to stage a mass march on the capital this Sunday aimed at scuppering the polls.

The BNP is one of 21 opposition parties which are boycotting the elections over Hasina's refusal to stand aside and allow a neutral caretaker government to organise the contest.

The country's largest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, has also been banned from taking part.

"Since [Wednesday] she has been under virtual house arrest," BNP vice-president Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury said. "Police are not allowing anyone, including party leaders and activists, to meet her. It is part of a government move to foil the December 29 march for democracy."

Deputy commissioner of Dhaka police Lutful Kabir confirmed that extra officers had been deployed outside Zia's home in the upmarket Gulshan neighbourhood, but said the move was designed to "enhance her security". Police confirmed two senior BNP members, including a current lawmaker, were detained outside Zia's home on Wednesday night but denied the arrests were made because they wanted to meet her.

With Hasina and her Awami League party determined that the poll go ahead, troops are being sent to nearly every corner of the country at the end of what has been an unprecedented year for political violence. Some 269 people have been killed since January, either in protests at the polls or by Islamists who have seen several of their leaders sentenced to death for crimes dating back to the 1971 independence war.

The authorities are expecting Sunday's rally to further inflame tensions, with Zia having made clear its purpose is to force a last-minute cancellation of the polls.

"This march is to say 'no' to these farcical elections and to say 'yes' to democracy," she said in a speech on Tuesday.

The troop deployments are expected to infuriate the BNP, which has accused the government of trying to set up the army against normal civilians. Election Commission spokesman S.M. Asaduzzaman said that troops would be deployed in at least 59 of the country's 64 districts.

"They'll be used as a striking force if there is any violence and they will patrol important areas, streets and highways," he said.

While a small number of soldiers had begun taking up positions earlier this week, military spokesman Muhammad Reza-ul Karim said the mass deployment began yesterday and will continue until January 9.

The boycotts have highlighted the growing political polarisation in the country of 153 million.

While Bangladesh has had a deeply troubled history since independence, with nearly two dozen coups, this year has been the bloodiest since it broke free from its former rulers in Islamabad 42 years ago.

A constable was burned to death in a petrol bomb attack on a police vehicle on Tuesday night, while two more people succumbed to their burn injuries on Wednesday.

The United States, European Union and the Commonwealth countries have announced they will not send observers to the election, seriously denting its credibility.