Thousands of people have taken to the streets across Bangladesh to protest the imprisonment of former prime minister and opposition leader Khaleda Zia.
Supporters and members of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main opposition party of the country which is led by Zia, staged rallies in various cities to demand her immediate release from jail.
Zia, 72, is expected to appeal a last week verdict which put her behind bars for five years over embezzlement. BNP supporters say the verdict is politically-motivated and that public inaction could embolden the government to keep Zia in jail over other charges even if she wins her current appeal.
Protesters also called on the government to abolish the embezzlement conviction against Zia, arguing it could affect the two-time prime minister’s ability to stand in a general election slated for December.
“We want her immediate release and a free and fair election,” said Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, the secretary general of the BNP, during a protest outside the national press club in Dhaka.
Bangladesh has stepped up a crackdown on dissent since prosecutors called for Zia’s imprisonment two weeks ago. At least 4,300 opposition officials have been arrested in the period, according to Alamgir who said that a BNP vice chairman and two former ministers were among those detained. He added that the arrests showed how frightened the government was by the popular resistance to Zia’s jailing.
Many say the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina views Zia and the BNP as the main threat to her rule in Bangladesh, a country of 160 million, mostly Muslims.
The BNP has announced that it will contest the upcoming elections unlike a previous one in 2014, which was boycotted by the party and allowed an easy return to power for Hasina.