Bangladesh police have arrested and detained 33 leaders of an Islamic political party in an apparent government-backed crackdown during the past two weeks, activists and officials from the opposition alliance said Tuesday.
Meanwhile, a court in Comilla district, about 100 km (62.5 miles) southeast of the capital Dhaka, issued an arrest warrant on Tuesday against Khaleda Zia, a former prime minister who is the chairwoman of the opposition’s leading party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), over an arson case dating back two years.
Mokbul Ahmad, acting chief of the faith-based party Jamaat-e-Islami, and seven other leaders were arrested in a raid on a house in Dhaka’s northern neighborhood of Uttara on Monday night, police said.
Jamaat officials said 25 other party leaders were arrested in six districts across the country.
The suspects were formally charged on Tuesday for allegedly violating the explosives law and the Special Powers Act, according to Saju Mia, officer-in-charge of Kadamtaoli police station in Dhaka.
Police gave no details on the arrests, which took place while the Jamaat officials were “holding a clandestine meeting.”
The eight Jemaat leaders were detained after police obtained information that the men were meeting “to plot and carry out some destructive activities,” according to a report by Reuters.
A court had issued an order allowing police to hold the suspects for 10 days while they conducted their investigation, officials said.
Opposition leaders said the arrests came after the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina received criticisms over its handling of a massive new influx of Rohingya refugees from neighboring Myanmar.
BNP leaders also charged that Hasina’s government launched the crackdown in preparation for the next general elections expected to take place in late 2018 or early 2019.
“Issuing an arrest warrant at a time when the BNP chairperson prepares to return home is politically motivated, and it demonstrates vengeance,” Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, BNP’s senior joint secretary, told a news conference Tuesday as he announced plans to hold rallies to protest the warrant against Zia.
Obaidul Quader, the Awami League’s general secretary and senior minister, said it was the court, not the government, which issued the arrest warrant against Zia and her party’s leaders.
“The BNP becomes overzealous when a court verdict goes against the government, but they stage protest rallies when those go against them,” he told reporters.
Zia, the BNP chief, left Bangladesh for London on July 15 for “medical reasons,” according to party officials.
Zia and dozens others were charged over an arson attack in February 2015, in which eight passengers were killed when an unidentified man threw a Molotov cocktail at a bus in Comilla district.
Jamaat-e-Islami, in a statement issued Tuesday, said party leaders had nominated senior leader Mujibur Rahman as its acting president and ATM Masum as secretary-general.
The nominations took place a day after police arrested Ahmad, the party’s acting chief, and Secretary-General Shafiqur Rahman on Monday night.
Rahman announced, in the same statement, that the party would organize nationwide rallies and strikes, starting Wednesday, to protest the arrests.
Since Hasina’s avowedly secular Awami League party took power eight years ago, more than 320 people have been unlawfully detained or have disappeared, according to Odhikar, a Dhaka-based human rights group. It said the victims included members of the opposition, as well as suspected criminals and militants.
Awami League leaders frequently accuse BNP and its ally, the faith-based Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami party, of being pro-Pakistan and many of the missing people have hailed from the two opposition parties.
After its partition from India in 1947, Bangladesh, which was then East Pakistan, emerged as a nation in 1971 despite violent resistance from the Pakistani military.
Hasina owes her 2009 election victory in part to her promise to prosecute those accused of war crimes. Jamaat was known to have opposed Bangladesh’s birth in 1971.
After Bangladesh became a nation, the Awami League won the first general elections in 1973 but was overthrown in 1975 after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – Hasina’s father – during a military coup. The party was forced by subsequent military regimes onto the political sidelines and many of its senior leaders and activists were executed and jailed.
Under Hasina’s rule as prime minister, several leaders from opposition parties have been prosecuted and executed over alleged crimes committed during the 1971 war, when they fought on the pro-Pakistani side.
The government’s sudden move to arrest opposition leaders could be a part of plans to divert the public’s attention as Hasina also dealt with the controversy over the country’s chief justice, Surendra Kumar Sinha.
Sinha, who is widely seen as a major government critic, was forced to go on a month-long leave over disagreements with Hasina’s government, political analysts said.
“To divert the people’s attention from the government’s failure to deal with the Rohingya crisis and the leave of the chief justice, the government has resorted to arresting the opposition leaders,” said Emanjuddiin Ahmad, a professor of political science at Dhaka University.