DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) – Hundreds of opposition protesters rallied Sunday in Bangladesh’s capital to demand that authorities release 33 of their leaders and find a missing opposition official.
Former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia led the protest in downtown Dhaka as the activists staged a six-hour symbolic hunger strike. The protesters chanted “Down with the autocratic government” and “Free our leaders.”
Similar protests took place in all major cities and towns across the country Sunday.
The 18-party opposition alliance led by Zia accuses the government of manipulating courts and of abducting one of its leaders, Elias Ali. The government denies the allegations.
On Thursday, bomb blasts and arrests occurred as the alliance enforced a nationwide general strike protesting a court order rejecting bail for 33 jailed opposition leaders in an arson case. The leaders include former Cabinet ministers and the acting secretary-general of Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The opposition says the arson charge is politically motivated.
The opposition has also set a June 10 ultimatum for the government to restore a caretaker government system to oversee national elections due in 2014.
Zia told her supporters Sunday that the opposition would not participate in the elections unless a nonpartisan government is in place.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government has repeatedly refused to restore the 15-year-old system it scrapped last year. The opposition says the move was part of a plan to rig the elections. The government says it did so to abide by a Supreme Court ruling that the system contradicts the spirit of the constitution.
In April, the opposition enforced five days of nationwide general strikes to protest Ali’s disappearance.
Political tensions have risen sharply since Ali, an organizing secretary in Zia’s party, and his driver went missing from a street in Dhaka on April 17.
Local rights groups have counted at least 22 disappearances this year and more than 50 since 2010, mostly of politicians. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have urged the government to investigate.
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