Early in her political career, Sheikh Hasina was never afraid of a challenge. She led a campaign against martial law in the 1980s when she was detained several times, eventually leading to parliamentary elections of 1991 and a return to democracy.
But that appears to have changed since she took office as prime minister of Bangladesh in 2009. Even as she boasted of her government’s successes, successive elections have been marked by intimidation and fraud.
With elections due again in 2024 and the ruling Awami League party seeking a fourth consecutive term, Sheikh Hasina and her government are cracking down on campaign activities by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Journalists reported on Thursday that she told her party leaders and activists, “The hands that would be raised against us have to be broken.”
Since the BNP announced it was planning a massive rally in the capital, Dhaka, on December 10, Awami League members, backed by security forces, have violently assaulted opposition gatherings. Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told the media that the government will not tolerate rallies on the streets. Ostensibly to prevent violence, police have ramped up security, set up check posts at the capital’s entry points, and are searching buses and private cars. The effect has been to intimidate opposition supporters.
On December 7, one man was killed and over 50 others injured during clashes between police, ruling Awami League and opposition supporters . Hundreds of opposition leaders and activists were arrested, and BNP headquarters raided.
BNP leader Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir criticized restrictions on peaceful political activities, accusing the authorities of creating an “environment of panic.” A day later, the authorities detained him and another opposition leader, Mirza Abbas, in a midnight raid and accused of inciting attacks on police.
The US embassy in Dhaka expressed concerns, calling on all parties to respect the rule of law and to refrain from violence, harassment, and intimidation. Clement Voule, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of association and peaceful assembly, said the authorities should guarantee the right to peaceful assembly and not use excessive force against protesters.
Sheikh Hasina’s government has committed extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, and torture allegedly to maintain power. Concerned governments should publicly call on the prime minister to allow Bangladeshis to freely engage in peaceful political activities.
Sheik Hasina should accept the challenge of democratic rule, not authoritarian abuse.