Exiled Bangladesh opposition leader Tarique Rahman has accused the Sheikh Hasina government of “state terrorism” and called on the country’s trading partners and the UN to press for a restoration of real democracy in the south Asian nation of 160m people.
As Mr Rahman was speaking to the Financial Times on Monday, more than 100 club-wielding thugs loyal to the ruling Awami League attacked a convoy carrying his mother Khaleda Zia, Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP) leader, in the capital Dhaka. Some 15 people were reported injured and six vehicles damaged.
“They are creating state terrorism, they are sponsoring state terrorism,” Mr Rahman said via Skype from London, where he has sought political asylum.
He called on Bangladesh’s trading partners to apply diplomatic and economic pressure on Ms Hasina — for example by cutting aid and equipment exports for the police — and urged the UN to exclude tainted members of the security forces from the international peacekeeping operations to which Bangladesh is a big contributor.
“Many of those people are involved abducting and killing political activists in their own country,” he said, singling out the Rapid Action Battalion, an elite anti-crime and anti-terror unit, for particular criticism. “How could they be involved in keeping the peace in other countries?”
There have been more than 200 “disappearances” by the RAB and other groups since 2009, according to Bangladesh rights group Odhikar.
Predominantly Muslim Bangladesh has had a troubled history since its violent birth and separation from Pakistan in 1971. Mr Rahman’s father, Ziaur Rahman, ran the country as military dictator after the assassination of Bangladesh’s founding father and Ms Hasina’s father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, but was himself assassinated six years later.
Ms Hasina, at the head of the Awami League, and Ms Zia with the BNP — the “battling begums” — have each had stints as prime minister. But many Bangladeshis say that the fragile democracy that has functioned for the past two decades is now under threat from Ms Hasina’s refusal to brook any opposition to her administration.
Violence has worsened since January — the first anniversary of a controversial election boycotted by the BNP and won by Ms Hasina — with BNP leaders calling repeated strikes and transport shutdowns and the government persecuting its opponents and cracking down on the media.
More than 100 people have been killed in less than four months — some of them victims of firebomb attacks on buses blamed on the BNP’s allies — and the country’s crucial garment export trade has been disrupted. The BNP-led opposition alliance of 20 parties called another nationwide protest for Tuesday after the attack on Ms Zia’s convoy.
“More than 50,000 of my activists are in jail,” said Mr Rahman. “In the last six years about 1,500 of them have been killed by the police or the RAB.” He echoed the complaints of human rights groups about corruption and abuse of the justice system, saying that 640,000 false cases had been filed against Ms Hasina’s opponents on a range of charges.
Ms Hasina, he said, was running a “dictatorship” and crushing democratic opposition parties, a tactic that would simply drive her opponents underground and benefit new organisations such as the fundamentalist Hefazat Islam.
“The root cause of the whole problem is the [necessity of] having a fair election,” he said. “It’s a risk not only for Bangladesh. Slowly and gradually, it’s becoming a risk for the whole democratic world.”
If Ms Hasina did not respond, Mr Rahman said, foreign countries should “take strong measures — they should pressurise her”.
Mr Rahman has himself been accused of corruption when he and his mother were in power and of instigating political violence from his base in London.
The Awami League government listed him as a wanted man through Interpol, accusing him of murder in connection with a 2004 grenade attack on an Awami League rally in Bangladesh. Ms Hasina narrowly escaped death but 24 others were killed.
Mr Rahman rejected these and other charges against him, calling the cases “politically motivated”.