DHAKA, Bangladesh: Five members of Bangladesh’s main opposition party have died in prison in the past two weeks, officials and relatives said on Sunday, as thousands took to the streets before next month’s general election.
The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is boycotting the January 7 vote, leaving the re-election of incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina a foregone conclusion.
The BNP says its entire leadership and more than 20,000 politicians have been arrested over the past five weeks in “an unprecedented crackdown” that followed a massive opposition rally in the capital on October 28.
Police have rejected the BNP’s arrest figures, while not disclosing how many opposition activists have been detained.
A few thousand BNP supporters, including detainees’ family members, gathered on Sunday in central Dhaka to demand the activists’ release.
Last month, New York-based Human Rights Watch estimated that at least 10,000 opposition supporters had been arrested since the October 28 rally.
In the violence that has unfolded since that rally, one police officer and five civilians were killed and nearly 300 buses torched, according to police.
But the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist party, which was banned last month, said at least 20 people were dead.
The BNP has also tallied five deaths in custody among its activists in the past two weeks, party legal chief Kayser Kamal said.
“We want a full judicial and impartial investigation into the deaths,” he said. “This is serious.”
“We’ve learnt that many BNP activists were tortured in police custody after they were arrested as part of the nationwide crackdown,” he added.
Relatives said their loved ones were being detained in overcrowded and inhumane conditions.
Asaduzzaman Khan Hira, 45, a low-level BNP official in Gazaipur, died on December 1 after being taken to hospital from Kashimpur High Security, one of his cousins said.
“We heard from fellow inmates that he was tortured by police during interrogation. He fell sick in prison and was taken to Gazipur Sadar hospital after his condition deteriorated. He died there,” he said.
BNP village official A.K. Azad Sohel, 47, died in hospital on Thursday in the northwestern city of Rajshahi, more than two weeks after police arrested him, one of his brothers said.
“He was fully fit when he was arrested,” he said. “They tied him with chains and handcuffs. We suspect he was tortured in custody.”
The family members asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.
Sazzad Hossain, an assistant inspector general of prisons, confirmed the death of five people in jail over the past two weeks, but rejected the allegations they were tortured.
“They died from natural causes,” he said.
While critics accuse Bangladesh’s authorities of targeting opposition figures to sideline them from the coming election, the government said it is committed to holding free and fair polls.
Hasina has overseen a period of prolonged economic growth over 15 years in power in the world’s eighth most populous country, but there has been international alarm over democratic backsliding and thousands of extrajudicial killings.