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 Jan. 5 general election, the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) said police were barring anyone from visiting its leader, former Bangladeshi prime minister Khaleda Zia, at her home in Dhaka.
The move comes after Zia, an archrival of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, called for supporters to stage a mass march on the capital on 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 organize the contest.
The country’s largest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, has also been banned from taking part.
“Since yesterday she [Zia] 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 Dec. 29 march for democracy,” he added.
Dhaka police deputy commissioner Lutful Kabir confirmed that extra officers had been deployed outside Zia’s home in the upmarket Gulshan neighborhood, but said the move was designed to “enhance her security.”
Police confirmed that two senior BNP members, including a 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 the election goes 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.
A total of 269 people have been killed since January this year, either in protests at the elections or by Islamists who have seen several of their leaders sentenced to death from 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 the army up 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 would continue until Jan. 9.
“The troops have been deployed at the request of the Election Commission ... in an effort to ensure free, fair and peaceful elections,” Karim said in a statement.
He did not say how many troops were being deployed, but local media put the number at about 50,000.
The boycotts have highlighted the growing political polarization in the country of 153 million.
A constable was burned to death in a gasoline bomb attack on a police vehicle on Tuesday night, while two more people succumbed to their burn injuries on Wednesday.