By Serajul Quadir and Zeba Siddiqui
DHAKA (Reuters) – Bangladesh’s main opposition group promised on Monday to remove curbs on free speech and the media and to rein in the police if it unseats Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina from her decade-long rule in this month’s national election.
Presenting its manifesto in Dhaka, the Jaitya Oikya Front, or National Unity Front alliance, also pledged to bring in a series of checks and balances on central government power.
It would create an upper house of parliament, introduce a rule that would bar a prime minister from running for office for more than two consecutive terms, and give the central bank more autonomy.
The alliance also promised to raise the minimum wage of garment workers and freeze gas and electricity prices for the first year that it is in power.
Hasina, who is Bangladesh’s longest-ruling leader and is seeking a third straight term in the election scheduled for Dec. 30, has been accused by the opposition and human rights groups of becoming increasingly authoritarian.
CRACKEDDOWN ON DISSENT
While she is credited for improving the economy and has been lauded internationally for providing refuge to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing violence and persecution in Myanmar, she has also cracked down on dissent, stifled the opposition and introduced a tough new media law.
With less than two weeks to go before the polls, the opposition alliance has complained of harassment.
“It is doubtful that the election will be free and fair,” said Kamal Hossain, leader of the alliance that includes the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
“In every district our candidates are being arrested…in the last 50 years of my political life, I have never seen such a situation.”
Clashes have broken out in several parts of Bangladesh since campaigning officially began last week, and at least six BNP candidates have been injured while they were out seeking votes. The party has called for the army to take over to restore order.
The BNP alleges scores of its workers have been detained by police on fictitious charges, or even killed, under Hasina’s rule, especially over the past few months, and say that the Election Commission has turned a blind eye.
Asaduzzaman Khan, minister for home affairs and also a senior leader of Hasina’s ruling Awami League, denied the allegations.
“No workers of BNP have been detained or arrested without an arrest warrant or specific charges, the question of killing or murder does not arise at all,” Khan told Reuters.
The alliance said it would form an independent commission to investigate suspected politically motivated cases under Hasina’s rule and punish police involved in them. It also promised to stop disappearances and extrajudicial killings. Khan also called those allegations baseless
The BNP has close links to the Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamic party, many of whose members have been convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death or life imprisonment under Hasina’s rule.
Bangladesh’s Election Commission scrapped Jamaat’s registration following a Supreme Court judgement. Even so, at least 22 members of the party are contesting in the upcoming polls under the BNP banner, and three as independent candidates.
Hossain has said the alliance has no links to the Jamaat, but Hasina has accused the alliance for fielding “war criminals”.
The media policy perhaps goes further than most in rolling back Hasina’s recent moves.
“There will be no direct or indirect control on mass media, the manifesto said.
(Additional reporting by Ruma Paul in Dhaka; Editing by Angus MacSwan)