/ 4 June 2008

Over 10 000 arrested in Bangladesh crackdown

At least 10 000 people have been detained over the past week in a major crackdown on crime in emergency-ruled Bangladesh, the country’s police chief said on Wednesday.

National police chief Nur Mohammad said the operation, which is expected to last one month, was aimed at improving security ahead of the country’s scheduled return to democracy with elections by the end of the year.

But he rejected complaints from Bangladesh’s main political parties, who have been sidelined by the army-backed government, that it was their members and supporters who were being rounded up.

”It’s part of a month-long nationwide special drive against crime. We have just become a bit more aggressive than what we usually do on a normal day,” said Mohammad.

The police chief said more than 1 700 people had been detained over the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of arrests to more than 10 000 since the crackdown was launched on the night of May 28.

”We are arresting only those against whom there are specific allegations, cases or warrants. Many of them are smugglers and owners of illegal arms. There is no political motivation behind the arrests,” he said.

Bangladesh’s two main political parties — the Awami League of Sheikh Hasina Wajed and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of Khaleda Zia — have accused the emergency government of ”repression”.

”The mass arrests will only jeopardise the elections. Arrests and repression will put the government in a confrontation against the people,” Sheikh Hasina, who is herself in detention, was quoted as saying by her lawyer Kamrul Islam.

BNP secretary general Khandaker Delwar Hossain also said ”thousands of innocent BNP leaders and activists have been arrested”.

”A large number of party men have gone into hiding,” he added.

The wave of arrests began days after the Awami League and the BNP said they would boycott talks with the army-backed administration on organising elections unless their leaders are released.

A Bangladesh court last month charged ex-premier Sheikh Hasina with taking bribes. Her political rival Zia, also an ex-premier, is being held on graft charges linked to the awarding of a multi-million-dollar government contract.

The military-backed government, which came to power in January 2007 after emergency rule was imposed and elections cancelled, last year detained thousands of party activists in a bid to clean-up the country’s graft-ridden politics.

More than 150 top politicians including Sheikh Hasina and Zia have been arrested during the drive, while dozens of former ministers and ex-lawmakers have been jailed for up to 20 years.

The country’s top human rights group, Ain and Salish Kendra (Law and Justice Centre), expressed its concern over the crackdown.

”When the government launched the drive it said it would recover arms and arrest criminals and terrorists,” the centre’s executive director Sultana Kamal said in a statement.

”But so far only an insignificant number of arms have been recovered. In some cases we have noticed that grassroots political leaders have been arrested,” she said.

”The government must ensure that no innocent people are arrested in the drive,” she added. – AFP