DHAKA: The Bangladeshi capital came to a standstill on Saturday, with counter-terrorism units on standby as tens of thousands of supporters of the main opposition party demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and early elections.
The country’s largest protest since 2009 — when the ruling Awami League party came to power — took place amid heightened tensions after security forces fired on activists outside the headquarters of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party earlier this week, leaving one person dead, and scores injured.
Hundreds of activists have been arrested over the past few days, including BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir.
Protesters gathered at the Golapbagh sports ground in south Dhaka on Saturday. BNP activists announced before the rally that they expected around 200,000 people to participate.
“It was a sea of people,” BNP vice-chairman Shamsuzzaman Dudu told Arab News. “The government tried to foil the rally in different ways — long-route bus movement on highways was stopped, city bus services were also barred. Despite this, participation was huge.
“I hope the government will realize the situation on the ground. If the government receives a message from this mass rally and steps down from power, then it is expected damage will be minimal.”
The party made 10 demands “aiming to restore democracy” during the rally, Dudu added, including the resignation of the government, the dissolution of parliament, the formation of a neutral caretaker cabinet, and the dropping of all cases against recently arrested BNP members and leaders.
Since the BNP announced the rally, police had ramped up security, reportedly putting an additional 30,000 personnel on the streets and setting up more than a dozen checkpoints across the capital.
Faruk Hossain, Dhaka Metropolitan Police’s deputy commissioner for media, told Arab News that SWAT teams and counterterrorism units were on standby. “We have taken all-out measures to maintain law and order,” he said. “Our special drives have been underway since the beginning of the month to arrest criminals. In the last 24 hours, 200 people were arrested in Dhaka.”
Anti-government protests have been held across the country in recent months over power cuts and fuel-price hikes. The prime minister has rejected calls to step down and announced on Wednesday that the next general elections will be held in January 2024.
Hasina was reelected for a third consecutive term in 2018, having previously also been prime minister from 1996-2001, but there have been widespread allegations of vote rigging at the last election.
Saturday’s rally was the 10th organized by the BNP party since September. All have been well-attended.
Last week’s violent crackdown on the opposition drew international condemnation, with 15 Western embassies issuing a joint statement calling on the Bangladeshi government to allow free expression and peaceful assembly.
On Thursday, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association Clement Voule wrote on Twitter that Bangladeshi authorities “must guarantee the right to peaceful assembly and refrain from using excessive force against protesters.”