Bangladesh accused of muzzling dissent after polls

Bangladesh accused of muzzling dissent after polls
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

DHAKA - Having ridden out the uproar over her walkover re-election, Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is now attempting to silence any further dissent with the crucial backing of the military, say observers.

The United States was among a host of countries to demand new polls that "credibly express the will" of the people after Hasina's ruling Awami League romped to victory in a January ballot boycotted by the opposition.

But rather than reach out to critics, Hasina has been accused of since seeking to hound them through the courts, muzzle the media and neuter the judiciary to cement her rule.

"The government hastily ratified these laws and policies to consolidate power," Ataur Rahman, an expert on Bangladeshi politics from the State University of New York, told AFP.

"With a tamed media and judiciary, the government can easily continue to rule unchallenged for years and the opposition won't be able to mobilise people to destabilise the regime." Few eyebrows were raised when opposition leader Khaleda Zia's attempts to prevent corruption allegations from coming to trial failed, as her enmity with Hasina dates back years. Her trial began last month.

But almost the entire leadership of Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party is now fighting multiple court cases, many over claims they were accessories to molotov cocktail attacks that injured no one.

According to the Prothom Alo daily, police filed cases against 355,908 people for violence since the turn of the year while thousands more are on the run.

"Now most leaders spend the better part of the day on court premises fighting charges and seeking bail," Nur Khan Liton, a leading rights activist, told AFP.

Accusations that judges took their orders from politicians were raised last year when a special government-appointed tribunal convicted a number of Islamists of war crimes dating back to the 1971 liberation conflict.

The Supreme Court has generally been seen as independent, its judgements embarrassing military and civilian governments alike over the years.

But legislation ratified last month means parliament now has the power to sack Supreme Court judges.

In August the government also rolled out new regulations for broadcasters, including a ban on speech deemed "anti-state".

Mahmudur Rahman Manna, a popular television host until his recent sacking, says he lost his job due to government pressure.

"The management told me the show was becoming very critical of the government and they were dropping me because of pressure from the government," Manna, who worked for the private Channel 24, told AFP.

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