Bangladesh has convicted 139 senior opposition party officials and activists in the past two days, prosecutors and lawyers said Monday, as a crackdown on anti-government protesters intensifies ahead of elections.
Those convicted included scores of activists from the country's main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), including on historic charges over protest violence, arson and obstructing the police, with convictions ranging from a few months to up to three-and-a-half years.
BNP has rejected the verdicts as "baseless and politically motivated".
Bangladesh goes to a general election on January 7, with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina eyeing her fourth consecutive term in power, despite concerns voiced by the United States and other countries over whether the vote will be free and fair.
The BNP has staged a series of major rallies and marches since last year in a bid to force Hasina to quit power and let a neutral government run the polls.
But since late last month, the police have cracked down on the opposition, arresting almost the entire top leadership of the BNP and arresting thousands of its activists and supporters.
'Strikes and blockades'
Two prosecutors told AFP at least 132 BNP activists and senior officials were jailed by two magistrate courts in the country's capital Dhaka on Sunday and Monday.
"Judge Md (Mohammed) Ataullah sentenced 70 BNP activists and leaders in four different cases Monday," prosecutor Shahid Uddin told AFP.
"They were found guilty of arson and obstructing police duty".
Uddin said the sentenced BNP men included its influential youth wing chief Sultan Salahuddin Tuku, two former student wing chiefs and a district wing chief.
"These cases are from 2013-2018 when opposition enforced strikes and blockades", Uddin said. "They got jail terms ranging from six months to two years".
Judge Mohammad Sheikh Sadi sentenced an additional 62 BNP activists to three-and-a-half years in jail each over a 2018 case, the chief public prosecutor of Dhaka, Abdullah Abu, told AFP.
Seven more BNP activists were also jailed by Judge Sadi, lawyer Nazrul Islam told AFP, adding that they included Saiful Alam Nirob, a former BNP youth wing chief who the New York Times reported was facing more than 300 court cases.
"No witnesses said anything against my client Nirob," his lawyer Islam said.
"Still, he was found guilty and sentenced. I am afraid no court on Earth would've heard this case, let alone delivering a judgement. Only God can explain this."
Prosecutors and lawyers said most of the accused were not present in court to hear their sentences.
"We can't even defend our clients properly. Despite being a defence lawyer, we didn't even know that there would be a verdict today," Islam added.
'Wipe out the BNP'
BNP legal chief Kayser Kamal accused the courts of acting as a political tool for the prime minister.
"The trials were held on political consideration. These cases targeted only the opposition leaders who contested parliamentary elections in the past and who can contest the vote in the future", Kamal told AFP.
"The whole idea is to wipe out the BNP and jail all opposition leaders and activists in the country."
Zoynal Abedin Misbah, another BNP lawyer, called the cases "false and fictitious", adding that they stemmed from a massive crackdown against the BNP between 2013 and 2018 when the party claims around four million BNP activists and officials were charged with violence.
But prosecutor Shahid Uddin rejected the BNP allegations, saying the party activists were jailed because there were concrete cases of violence and obstruction of police work against them.
Hasina has overseen massive economic growth during her 15 years in power, but there has been international alarm over democratic backsliding and thousands of extrajudicial killings.
On October 28, police broke up a large opposition rally in Dhaka after the killing of an officer, with the BNP saying 13 people were killed in the crackdown.
Since then, the party says at least 13,210 of its leaders and activists have been arrested.