x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Scores of opposition activists jailed as strike paralyses Bangladesh

At least 127 opposition supporters have been imprisoned for up to a year since Saturday night, with more than 120 other activists detained amid sporadic violence nationwide in protests against changes to Bangladesh's election laws.

DHAKA // More than 100 opposition political activists have been jailed in Bangladesh, police said yesterday, as a 36-hour strike over electoral changes shut down much of the country for a second day.

Police said at least 127 opposition supporters have been imprisoned for up to a year since Saturday night, with more than 120 other activists detained amid sporadic violence nationwide.

"Special teams of magistrates working with police have sentenced them to jail terms of between seven days and one year. Three people got one year for damaging vehicles," said police spokesman Masud Ahmed.

There have been 90 on-the-spot convictions in Dhaka since the protests started, with 28 people jailed in the southern port city of Chittagong and nine others in three small district towns, police said.

The worst violence broke out in northern Sirajganj town, where police fired rubber bullets and used tear gas to break up hundreds of protesters, leaving around a dozen people injured, said local police inspector Mostafa Harun said. At least nine buses and taxis were set ablaze by protesters and dozens of people were injured, according to police, as small but violent protests broke out in cities across the country.

Police said three senior opposition officials, including an elected parliamentarian, were detained outside their party's Dhaka headquarters, which have been cordoned off by hundreds of riot police since early Sunday.

On Sunday, police arrested an ex-minister and a former air force chief, who have been charged with torching vehicles and obstructing police work.

More than 9,000 policemen and 3,000 Rapid Action Battalion paramilitaries were deployed in Dhaka, as the strike shut shops, businesses and schools and left major roads and highways deserted.

The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its Islamist ally, Jamaat-e-Islami, called the strike to protest against recent changes to the electoral system, which they say unfairly favour the incumbent government.

Prime minister Sheikh Hasina said last month that a decades-old election system, in which a neutral caretaker government takes over for three months to hold polls, would be scrapped.

Opposition leader Khaleda Zia has said her right-of-centre party will not contest future polls if the caretaker system, which oversaw four successive elections, is abolished.

The system was introduced to guarantee free and fair polls in Bangladesh, which has a long tradition of political violence since its independence in 1971.

The opposition is now threatening a new strike to protest what it calls the "black laws" being used to issue on-the-spot jail terms to their activists, which have also been condemned by local rights groups.

Sultana Kamal, executive director of the local rights group ASK, said: "We are concerned because the convicts have got no chance to defend themselves. It can lead to indiscriminate convictions of innocent people."