NEWS

Violence Erupts as Thousands Demand Bangladesh PM Resign


Police in Bangladesh fired tear gas, sound grenades, and rubber bullets Saturday afternoon to break up a massive gathering of opposition supporters amid a steep escalation of political tensions.

The protesters were demanding that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina step down to allow for a free and fair election under a neutral government. The clashes, which unfolded in central Dhaka, underscore the deep-seated divisions in the country’s political landscape.

Police estimated more than 125,000 supporters from two prominent opposition parties, including the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, rallied to voice their demands. A VOA reporter near the rally witnessed hundreds of people running for safety as sound grenades detonated, enveloping the streets in plumes of smoke. The violence spread around the protest site, as police fired tear gas and rubber shotgun rounds, while protesters retaliated by throwing stones and bricks.

Bangladesh Police spokesperson AKM Kamrul Ahsan told VOA that at least one member from the police force was killed, and dozens of others were injured during the clashes.

“The police member who was hacked in the head died after being taken to the hospital,” he said.

Several individuals injured during the clashes were rushed to Dhaka Medical College Hospital, the country’s largest, with wounds from rubber bullets.

People carry a man wounded during a clash between supporters of Bangladesh Nationalist Party and police in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Oct. 28, 2023.

People carry a man wounded during a clash between supporters of Bangladesh Nationalist Party and police in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Oct. 28, 2023.

‘We call for calm’

The United States condemned the political violence that unfolded in Dhaka on Saturday afternoon.

“We call for calm and restraint on all sides and will review all violent incidents for possible visa restrictions,” said Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu in a statement posted on X, formerly Twitter.

In May, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the implementation of a new U.S. policy that allows the restriction of visas to individuals from Bangladesh who are found to undermine the country’s democratic election process.

The leading opposition party, BNP, alongside its former ally, the country’s largest Islamist party Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, organized the “grand rallies” in the capital with a singular objective: to call for the resignation of the prime minister’s government. They maintain she should relinquish her position to allow for an impartial caretaker administration to manage the upcoming polls scheduled for January.

Supporters of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party gather in the Naya Paltan area for a rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Oct. 28, 2023.

Supporters of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party gather in the Naya Paltan area for a rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Oct. 28, 2023.

Earlier in the afternoon, in Dhaka’s Naya Paltan neighborhood, the BNP rally kicked off in front of the party’s headquarters, with thousands of party leaders and activists, as well as affiliated organizations.

BNP Secretary-General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir — a senior figure in the party who assumed a prominent role after the incarceration of the party’s chief and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia on corruption charges — called upon the assembled crowd to maintain a peaceful and non-confrontational approach.

As BNP leaders addressed the gathering, protests led to confrontations with the police in close proximity. The police’s use of tear gas and sound grenades triggered a chaotic dispersal. The pervasive tear gas made it impossible for the central opposition leaders to stay on the stage.

Senior BNP Leader and the party’s Joint General Secretary Syed Moazzem Hossain Alal claimed police and the ruling party supporters attacked their rally.

“The party leadership remained on the stage urging for a peaceful gathering until the very last moment! However, we were compelled to vacate the stage when the police and the ruling party supporters came attacking our gathering. We had to defend ourselves,” Alal told VOA.

“Hundreds of BNP activists got injured by the brutal attacks by the police and the Awami League supporters. They had been planning for the attacks to foil our rally for days,” he added.

Police try to disperse protesters during a clash with the supporters of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Oct. 28, 2023.

Police try to disperse protesters during a clash with the supporters of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Oct. 28, 2023.

The BNP has called for a nationwide strike on Sunday in response to the violence.

The opposition has been staging protests for months, despite the BNP’s leader, Khaleda Zia, being under house arrest since 2020 following a conviction on corruption charges. Her supporters continued to pour into Dhaka for the rally, braving checkpoints on roads into the capital and overcrowded trains.

Protesters chanted slogans such as, “Vote thief, vote thief, Sheikh Hasina vote thief” during the demonstration in front of the BNP headquarters. In addition to the immediate resignation of the Hasina government, the opposition activists demanded the release of Khaleda Zia and the establishment of the people’s right to vote.

“The fascist Awami League government has run out of time, it’s time for Sheikh Hasina to step down or the common people will drag them down from power. People want to cast their vote freely and they want to vote for the BNP,” said Rahmat, a BNP supporter from northern-Bangladeshi district of Naogaon, who gave only his first name to VOA.

Obstructions to gathering

The BNP accused the police and security forces of obstructed the gathering of BNP supporters by employing tactics such as arrests, raids, and detentions. Multiple local media outlets have reported that law enforcement agencies established checkpoints at the entry points to Dhaka, seemingly intended to discourage people from participating in the rally.

“To the best of my knowledge, more than 2,000 BNP supporters were arrested or detained in just the last two days.The actual number might be much higher as we are still trying to gather more information,” said BNP leader Alal.

According to local media reports, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission issued a directive to telecom operators, instructing them to either shut down or reduce internet services from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the vicinity of the rally. The VOA reporter covering the event couldn’t access the internet while on-site. However, the BTRC has denied issuing such instructions, despite the claims by local media.

The Bangladeshi constitution underwent a transformation in 1996 with the introduction of an election-time caretaker government system tasked with supervising national elections. But under Hasina’s government, the system was abolished in 2011 following a Supreme Court ruling that declared the caretaker government system is in conflict with the constitution.

In 2014, the BNP chose to boycott the election, while in 2018, the election results generated a dispute over allegations of vote rigging by the ruling party, which emerged victorious with a substantial majority.

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