On November 20, Sanjida Islam Tuli woke up to the news that her elder brother, Sajedul Islam Suman, a leader of Bangladesh Nationalist Party, country’s main opposition outfit, had been sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prisonment in an arson case.

As it turns out, for the past eight years, Tuli and her family have been knocking every door possible to find Suman.

Suman is likely to be one of around 600 people who have been subjected to an “enforced disappearance” since Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League took power in 2009. Reports by independent media and human rights organisations have documented in detail the role of Bangladeshi law enforcement and security services in those abductions and secret detentions.

“You understand how surprising and sad it was for us to see that verdict against my brother,” Tuli said. “But this shows the extent to which this government has launched its all-out attack against its main political opposition ahead of the next election.”

Bangladesh is scheduled to hold its national election on January 7. Faced with intense protests over allegations of possible rigging and one-sided elections, Hasina and her administration have launched a violent crackdown on opposition parties and their supporters. More than 10,000 opposition leaders and activists have been jailed for vandalism and arson, says the Human Rights Watch.

So heavy-handed is the police action that activists and leaders of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, who were forcibly disappeared like Suman or are dead like Sanaullah Mia, have also been charged.

Mia, a lawyer and a leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, was named in a police arson case in November even though he died three years ago. “Police not only charged my dead father but also harassed our family for a crime that never took place,” Shafiqur Rahman, Mia’s son, told Scroll.

Mohammad Ali Arafat, an Awami League lawmaker, defended the law enforcement agencies. He instead accused the Bangladesh Nationalist Party of not participating peacefully in the electoral process, alleging that it was resorting to violence and arson.

“They are not being sent to jail for their political ideology,” said Arafat. “They are [being] sent to jail for their crimes.”

Shadow of past elections

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the archival and the main political opposition, has refrained from nominating any candidates for the election. November 30 was the last date for submitting the nomination papers for a constituency. Despite heavy pressure from the Western countries to ensure that the voting process is fair, Bangladesh seems set for a repeat of the “one-sided” polls held in 2014 .

Allegations of rigging during the last national election in 2018, in which the Bangladesh Nationalist Party participated, also overshadow the upcoming polls.The United States has already declared it will not tolerate a controversial election this time, slapping visa restrictions on those deemed “responsible for, or complicit in” undermining the democratic process.

For the past month, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its main ally, the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, have held strikes and transport blockades across the country demanding that the Hasina government quits so that elections can be held under a neutral caretaker government.

In 2011, during the first of Hasina’s three consecutive tenures, the Bangladesh parliament had abolished the caretaker government system through the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution.

Credit: Nazmul Islam.

Jail for many, bail for some

The Awami League government has launched what the Human Rights Watch called a “violent autocratic crackdown” against its political opponents.

“The government is claiming to commit to free and fair elections with diplomatic partners while the state authorities are simultaneously filling prisons with the ruling Awami League’s political opponents,” said Julia Bleckner, senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Almost all senior leaders of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, including its Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, are in jail. Most mid-level leaders are on the run. Last fortnight, a Dhaka court sentenced more than 130 Bangladesh Nationalist Party leaders to up to two and half years in jail.

Zahed Ur Rahman, a Dhaka-based political analyst, said the Bangladesh constitution bars those who have served more than two years in jail from being parliament members. “Very convenient, isn’t it?” said Rahman.

Law enforcement agencies have made arbitrary arrests of opposition activists, local media reported. When the police raided the homes of Bangladesh Nationalist Party members and failed to find them, they assaulted or arrested family members instead, say party officials.

On November 28, the family members of opposition activists and leaders who had been detained recently formed a human chain in front of the National Press Club in Dhaka, demanding the release of family members on bail. Afroza Abbas, wife of jailed senior Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader Mirza Abbas, said it was “suffocating”. “Police have detained innocent wives as their husbands are BNP activists,” she said. “What kind of country is this?”

Rahul Kabir Rizvi, joint secretary general of the party and one of the few senior leaders still out of jail, said it was an all-out “brutal and barbarian attack to wipe out political opposition”. “They believe that by suppressing our movement for restoring democracy, they will illegally cling on to power like the way they have for the past one decade,” said Rizvi.

On November 22, Alamgir, the 81-year old Bangladesh Nationalist Party Secretary General, was denied bail, just as several other opposition leaders and activists. Shahdeen Malik, a senior lawyer of Bangladesh’s Supreme Court, said law enforcement personnel are everywhere on the court premises. “My car was stopped every time I wanted to enter the court,” said Malik, speaking at a public forum where this correspondent was present. “I have never seen such a cantonment-like situation in court premises in my long career,” said Malik.

Credit: Nazmul Islam.

But bail is possible, as in the case of Shahjahan Omar, vice chairman of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Omar was imprisoned on November 3 in an arson case but walked out of jail three weeks later after securing bail. A day later, the Awami League nominated him as an election candidate.

Since the Bangladesh Nationalist Party has boycotted the national elections, the Awami League has been trying to give tickets to opposition leaders or convince them to stand as independent candidates.

Dhaka-based analyst Rahman said that Omar’s case of being granted bail and then an Awami League ticket was evidence enough that the judiciary had become the government’s “rubber stamp”. Throughout November, Rahman said, almost all the cases against the opposition leaders and activists were filed by the police with police as the only witnesses. “The cases were unreliable and the hearing was done hurriedly,” said Rahman.

Saimum Parvez, Political Science fellow at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, told Scroll that judiciary has been awarding “politicised verdicts to the opposition activists and condoning the ongoing systematic persecution.”

Parvez said that the arrests of opposition activists and leaders, torture, intimidation and the vandalising of their homes had created an environment of fear. It clearly demonstrates that the Awami League is trying to impose all “barriers possible to keep BNP away from participating in election”.

Police action to continue

As long as the violence continues, legal action will continue against the perpetrators, Awami League lawmaker Arafat said, drawing parallels with the insurrection at the United States Capitol in January 2021, weeks after Donald Trump lost the election.

“Those who went to surround and invade the Capitol were also ideologically driven political activists who were not spared but were indicted, arrested, and eventually sentenced,” said Arafat.

Researcher Parvez said that the Awami League’s claim that the Bangladesh Nationalist Party was to blame for violence and arson was “not only counter-intuitive but also farcical”. If the Awami League genuinely wants the opposition to participate in the election and conduct a credible and fair election, “it should immediately stop new arrests, release all the political prisoners and review the hastily given convictions”, he said.

Faisal Mahmud is a journalist in Dhaka.