Bangladeshi Police Clash with Striking Protesters

By Julhas Alam 23 April 2012

A security officer watches Bangladesh Nationalist Party supporters gather in front of their party office in Dhaka last month. (Photo: Reuters)

DHAKA, Bangladesh—Dozens injured as police fire rubber bullets and tear gas at stone-throwing opposition supporters enforcing a strike on Sunday to protest against a politician’s disappearance.

The clashes happened in the northeastern city of Sylhet, the hometown of Elias Ali, who heads the local branch of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and who went missing on Tuesday. His party has blamed security agencies and the government for his disappearance, and an 18-party opposition alliance enforced a daylong nationwide strike to pressure the government to find him.

The government has denied their claim, accusing his party of hiding him in order to create anarchy in the country.

Clashes and arrests were also reported in several other cities and towns during the strike that shut down shops, businesses and schools in many areas on Sunday, a working day in Muslim-majority Bangladesh.

The United News of Bangladesh agency, citing police, said that security officials arrested 180 opposition activists.

Late Sunday, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, a close aide of opposition leader Khaleda Zia, told a news conference they were extending the strike to Monday. He threatened more anti-government protests if Ali is not found, otherwise “our leaders and activists will continue to disappear, and we will sit idle,” he said.

Local and international human rights groups have reported a number of disappearances of politicians and businessmen in recent years and accused the country’s law enforcement agencies of being behind them. The agencies have repeatedly denied involvement.

On Sunday in Sylhet, police used tear gas, fired rubber bullets and charged with batons to disperse several hundred stone-throwing protesters, local police chief Sakhawat Hossain said.

He said dozens were injured, including seven police officers. Police arrested 38 opposition activists in Sylhet, 120 miles northeast of the capital, Dhaka.

In Dhaka, traffic was thin on the usually clogged streets amid tight security, with several thousand police deployed across the city of 10 million people.

Several homemade bombs exploded in parts of Dhaka, but no injuries were immediately reported.

On Saturday, unidentified arsonists set fire to at least five buses in Dhaka ahead of the strike, killing one driver who had been asleep inside his vehicle.

Ali’s wife said he went missing along with his driver on Tuesday night after leaving their home in Dhaka. His car was found by residents on a street early Wednesday, abandoned and with its doors open.

The Asian Human Rights Commission said on Friday that Ali’s disappearance was not an “isolated” one and criticized the Bangladeshi government for not properly investigating allegations against security agencies.

“It is matter of grave concern that the incidents of disappearance are increasing, alarmingly and unabatedly,” the statement said.

Dhaka-based human rights group Ain-o-Salish Kendra has said 22 people went missing in the first three and a half months of this year, and most of them are politicians who have not been traced. It says 51 people were victims of “enforced disappearances” or “secret killings” in 2011.

Recently, a garment sector trade union leader went missing and his injury-riddled dead body was found days later. New York-based Human Rights Watch has expressed concern over his death.

Ali’s disappearance has further complicated Bangladesh’s politics. Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party has been holding anti-government protests for months to demand an independent caretaker government oversee elections. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government scrapped the 15-year-old system last year, saying it contradicted the constitution.

The opposition says elections will be rigged if held under the current government.

General strikes are commonly used by the opposition in Bangladesh to embarrass the government.