Politician's disappearance fuels Bangladesh crisis

Associated Press Modified: May 9, 2012 at 7:45 am •  Published: May 9, 2012
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DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — The night watchman was dozing in a wooden chair just after midnight on a deserted Bangladeshi street when he was startled by a scream. A group of men were pulling two people from a car and forcing them into a black microbus; "The two guys were shouting, 'Save us,'" before the car pulled away, Lutfar Rahman said.

The abductions of an opposition politician and his driver last month have sparked Bangladesh's biggest crisis in years, raised hostilities between the most prominent leaders of its fragile democracy and highlighted dozens of seemingly political disappearances.

The opposition has blamed the government, launched nationwide strikes and fought with police in street clashes that have killed five people and injured scores. Homemade bombs have exploded on the streets of Dhaka, including one inside a compound housing government ministries. The government has charged 44 top opposition leaders in connection with the violence.

On Wednesday, the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party vowed to resume demonstrations across the country along with 17 allied parties..

No one has claimed responsibility for Elias Ali's abduction, and no ransom has been demanded, the usual practice of criminal gangs in Bangladesh.

Security forces told the High Court this week they had no role in Ali's disappearance, and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina accused the opposition of hiding Ali to create an excuse to cause mayhem.

Hasina, however, later pledged to do everything possible to find Ali, when his wife and children met her seeking her intervention.

"The conflict is pushing Bangladesh toward a dangerous situation," said Adilur Rahman, secretary of Odhikar, a rights group.

Hasina and her archrival Khaleda Zia have alternated in power since a pro-democracy movement ousted the last military regime in 1990. Zia leads Ali's Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

The abductions of Ali and his driver as they returned home from meeting supporters at a hotel April 17 also has highlighted an increasing number of disappearances that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have blamed on security forces.

At least 22 people have disappeared this year, according to a local human-rights group, Ain-o-Salish Kendra. Odhikar reports that more than 50 people have disappeared since 2010. Many of the disappeared were politicians.

During her visit to Bangladesh last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton raised Ali's disappearance and the killing of labor leader Aminul Islam with the government, reflecting international concern over the issue.

Islam, who recently led a campaign for higher wages for the country's 3 million garment workers, was found dead along a highway April 5. His family blames the killing on law enforcement agencies.

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