DHAKA, Bangladesh >> Security forces and opposition activists clashed in the Bangladeshi capital on Sunday, leaving at least one student dead, as thousands of police took to the streets to foil a mass rally calling on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to cancel next month’s elections.
Hasina’s rival, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, was expected to address the rally later Sunday in defiance of a government ban on large political gatherings.
Security officials surrounded Zia’s home in Dhaka’s upscale Gulshan area, where most foreign embassies are located, and parked sand-laden trucks apparently to obstruct any attempt by Zia to leave her home.
Police denied that the measures were taken to stop her from joining the rally.
A 21-year-old student was killed when security officials clashed with opposition activists, said police official Mozammel Haque. Witnesses said the violence broke out after a group of activists from the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami party began marching on the streets.
As the impoverished South Asian nation’s political crisis deepened, local media reported more than 650 people have been detained since Friday as part of a nationwide crackdown ahead of Jan. 5 elections, which the opposition is boycotting. Opposition parties said those detained are their activists, but police said they were taken in on specific charges to prevent acts of sabotage.
The opposition insists Hasina should resign and hand over power to an independent caretaker to oversee the polls. Hasina has rejected the demand and vowed to go ahead with the elections.
Military troops have also been deployed across the country to help the civil administration conduct the election. Hundred and fifty-four people from Hasina’s Awami League party and its allies have already been elected uncontested in 300 constituencies.
Sunday’s rally was seen as the last major attempt by the opposition to derail the government’s plan to hold the election, but the protest was unlikely to succeed because of the government’s hard-line approach.
Apart from surrounding Zia’s home and her party’s headquarters in downtown Dhaka where the rally was supposed to be held, police sprayed water cannons at dozens of lawyers from Zia’s party and its main ally Jamaat-e-Islami at the Supreme Court premises. Security officials refused to allow the lawyers to leave the premises to join the rally.
More than 150 people have died in the political violence since October. The conflict pits an opposition alliance led by Zia’s opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party against Hasina, who blames her arch rival Zia of protecting people being tried or convicted of war crimes involving the nation’s 1971 independence war against Pakistan.
Jamaat-e-Islami party, which is the main partner of Zia’s party, wants the government to halt the war crimes trials of its leaders. Zia says the trials initiated by Hasina are politically-motivated to weaken the opposition, an allegation the government has denied. Most of the suspects or convicts are top leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, which had campaigned against the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. It is also blamed for forming citizens’ brigades as collaborators of the Pakistani military during the war.
Jamaat-e-Islami is banned from taking part in the election.