Dhaka (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of supporters of Bangladesh’s main opposition party took to the streets of the capital on Saturday defying fears of being arrested ahead of the country’s national election early next year.
The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), whose top leadership is either jailed or in exile, has demanded that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina step down and make way for a neutral government to oversee the Jan. 7 poll, which the opposition party has boycotted.
Many leaders and activists of BNP who are in hiding since Oct. 28, the day a police officer was killed and hundreds were injured during an anti-government protest, joined the Victory Day rally.
Some supporters and activists gathered in front of the padlocked headquarters entrance in Dhaka. Many of the senior party leaders are either in jail or absconding dozens of lawsuits filed by the police and the ruling party.
“If the government has the courage, it should resign and hold the election under a caretaker government,” Abdul Moyeen Khan, a former minister and member of the BNP’s highest policy-making body, told the rally.
“The government has turned this Victory Day into a day of defeat by killing democracy,” he said.
BNP activists were chanting anti-government slogans while heavy police presence was seen.
The election is being “stage-managed, by way of putting up ‘dummy candidates’ as well as through ‘horse trading’ of some politicians,” Khan told Reuters earlier.
Hasina, seeking a fifth term — the fourth consecutive — has repeatedly rebuffed opposition calls to resign, blaming the BNP for deadly street protests in recent days in support of their demand.
BNP said nearly 10,000 people have been arrested since the election was announced on Nov. 15. Police say they have arrested only those responsible for violence.
Dozens of buses and vehicles have been set on fire over the past month, authorities said.
Rights groups have accused the government of targeting opposition leaders and supporters.
The government denies the accusations but it is under pressure from Western countries to hold free, fair and participatory elections.
The United States, the top buyer of Bangladeshi garments, said in May it was implementing a policy allowing for the restriction of visas to Bangladeshis who undermine the democratic election process in the country of nearly 170 million people.
Senior BNP leader Nazrul Islam Khan said: “People do not want this election. People will not go to vote,” calling it a “farcical” election.