DHAKA: Hundreds of opposition protesters rallied today in Bangladesh’s capital to demand that authorities release 33 of their leaders and find a missing opposition official.
Former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia was leading today’s protest in downtown Dhaka as the activists gathered at an exhibition hall and staged a six-hour, symbolic hunger strike.
Similar protests took place in all major cities and towns across the country today.
In Dhaka, they chanted anti-government slogans such as “Down with the autocratic government” and “Free our leaders.”
Opposition spokesman Nazrul Islam Khan said they organised the protest against “government oppression”.
The 18-party opposition alliance led by Zia accuses the government of manipulating courts and of abducting one of its leaders, Elias Ali. The government denies the allegations.
On Thursday, bomb blasts and arrests occurred as the alliance enforced a nationwide general strike protesting a court order rejecting bail for 33 jailed opposition leaders in an arson case. The leaders include former Cabinet ministers and the acting secretary-general of Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The opposition says the arson charge is politically motivated.
The opposition has also set a June 10 ultimatum for the government to restore the caretaker government system to oversee national elections due in 2014.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government scrapped the 15-year-old system last year in what the opposition says was part of a plan to rig the elections. But the government says it did so to abide by a Supreme Court verdict saying the system is contradictory to the spirit of the constitution.
In April, the opposition enforced five days of nationwide general strikes to protest against the disappearance of Ali.
Political tensions have sharply risen since Ali, an organising secretary in Zia’s party, and his driver went missing April 17 from a street in Dhaka.
Local rights groups have counted at least 22 disappearances this year and more than 50 since 2010, mostly of politicians. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have urged the government to investigate.