One dead, dozens of voting booths hit in Bangladesh

DHAKA (AFP) - Dozens of polling booths were torched on the eve of Bangladesh's violence-plagued election as the opposition staged a general strike in a final act of defiance against the "farcical" polls.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which is boycotting the vote, called the 48-hour strike but it has little chance of thwarting Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's re-election in what is effectively a one-party contest.

The strike comes after BNP leader Khaleda Zia issued an appeal to voters to also "completely boycott" what she called "a scandalous farce" and accused the government of placing her under house arrest.

The build-up to Sunday's vote has been dominated by violence, with around 150 people killed in election-related unrest since the date was set in October.

Observers fear the contest will fuel the turmoil after Bangladesh endured its bloodiest 12 months since the brutal 1971 independence war against Pakistan.

The main headline in Saturday's Dhaka Tribune read: "Tension, fear mark build-up to the polls" while all newspapers carried pictures of the latest victims of the violence, many of them with horrific burns.

One opposition activist was killed on Saturday morning in the northern town of Patgram during clashes with Awami League supporters, police said.

Officials also said that protesters had set fire to or attempted to torch 34 polling booths while insisting that the attacks would not derail the election.

Although the government has officially denied Ms Zia has been detained, aides say she has been barred from leaving her Dhaka home for nearly a week.

Dozens of riot police could be seen outside her home on Saturday, along with water-cannon and sand trucks, preventing anyone from crossing through barriers.

The BNP and 20 other parties are boycotting the polls after Ms Hasina rejected their demands that it be overseen by a neutral caretaker government.

This weekend strike is only the latest in a string of such protests which have forced the closure of schools, offices and shops.

Following a series of firebombings of cars and buses, many Bangladeshis are too scared to leave their homes during the shutdowns.

Police say 1,200 opposition activists have been detained although the parties say the actual number is much higher.

Around 50,000 troops have been deployed across the country in a bid to contain the unrest.

The United States, European Union and Commonwealth have refused to send observers to an election that the opposition says lacks any credibility.

The outcome is not in doubt as Awami League candidates or their allies are running unopposed in 153 of the 300 parliamentary seats.

Ms Hasina has rejected all demands for a postponement until there is consensus on the electoral framework, accusing Ms Zia of "choosing the path of confrontation".

Mr Gowher Rizvi, Ms Hasina's senior foreign policy adviser, said the government had no choice but to hold the elections as parliament's term had expired.

"If we had postponed them, there would have been a complete legal and constitutional vacuum," Mr Rizvi told AFP, while admitting the BNP's boycott was a blow.

"When a major party refuses to take part in an election, clearly some of the lustre of the election is lost."

He said the premier had made clear her desire to "engage in a constructive dialogue" with the BNP, although Ms Hasina and Ms Zia have a toxic relationship.

BNP vice chairman Shamsher Chowdhury said there could be no compromise on the party's demands for Ms Hasina to stand aside for fresh elections.

A poll published on Friday showed the BNP would have narrowly beaten the Awami League and that 77 per cent of voters are against the election.

"We would certainly have won an election that was free, fair in a mechanism that gave voters a free choice," Mr Chowdhury told AFP.

"Only elections under a non-party government can ensure enough fairness to create a level playing field."

Both sides have blamed each other for the latest unrest, which has pushed the death toll from political violence since the start of 2013 to more than 500, according to local rights activists.

Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group, said both sides shared responsibility for the chaos.

"For an election to be free and fair, voters need to be able to vote in an atmosphere of free expression and free association," said the group's Asia director Brad Adams.

"The actions of Bangladeshi political leaders - whether the government crackdown on the opposition or the opposition complicity in poll violence - deprive the country's voters of any true choice."

Some of the worst violence followed the conviction of leading Islamists for crimes in the 1971 independence war. The main Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, has been banned from the polls.

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