Rishi Sunak has faced backlash after putting on a friendly display with Bangladesh’s hardline leader Sheikh Hasina Wazed at the G20 summit in Delhi.
The British Prime Minister was pictured kneeling close to the 76-year-old and engaging in an animated conversation, which supporters of Hasina hailed as an endorsement of a leader who has been in power since 2009.
Although Bangladesh is not a member of the G20, it was invited as a guest due to its status as an emerging economy and Hasina’s close ties with Narendra Modi, the Indian premier.
However, critics have slammed her attendance as a PR exercise designed to make her look triumphant on the international stage, mixing with the likes of Sunak and US President Joe Biden.
It comes as protests by Bangladesh opposition parties demanding a free and fair election have descended into violence – with angry protesters taking to the streets over recent months demanding that Hasina resign.
The British Prime Minister was pictured kneeling close to the 76-year-old Bangladeshi Premier and engaging in an animated conversation
Angry protesters have taken to the streets over recent months demanding that Hasina resign
Human Rights Watch reported that authorities indiscriminately fired rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons, and beat opposition party supporters with batons during a demonstration in late July.
In recent years, the group has also highlighted what it says are the ‘enforced disappearances’ of hundreds of critics and other authoritarian tactics being used to silence opposition to the government.
The hashtag ‘StepDownHasina’ has recently been trending online, with activists sharing videos of police crackdowns on peaceful protests.
Mass processions staged by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party have seen calls for free and fair elections ahead of the country going to the polls next year, in a vote Hasina is widely expected to win.
Writer Deep Halder tweeted: ‘Bangladesh will soon decide whether to bring Sheikh Hasina back to power.
‘As far as optics go, if she needed any endorsement from the outside world, #G20SummitDelhi gave it to her.’
The photo of Sunak kneeling next to Hasina is now being promoted by her party, the Awami League, as an image which portrays her as a respected veteran world leader.
Despite being labelled a ruthless dictator and south Asia’s ‘Iron Lady’ by many, Hasina is called ‘Mother of Humanity’ by her supporters.
The title arose after she allowed more than a million Rohingya refugees to seek shelter in her country from genocide and persecution in Myanmar.
One supporter of Hasina said on a Facebook post: ‘When the British Prime Minister spoke to the Mother of Humanity, our Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
In office since 2009, Hasina is the world’s longest-serving female premier, and continues to enjoy significant public support
‘Honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the jewel of the country, whose leadership and affection all the young leaders of the world are fascinated by.
‘That’s why British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak went to Honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and engaged in chatting with him like a child.’
Raihanul Islam Chowdhury, another Facebook user, wrote: ‘The British, who ruled these territories for 200 years, when those British, humbled, talk to us on bended knees, it shows how much our worth has gone up.’
Sunak’s apparent kneeling down to Hasina has been condemned by opposition leaders in Bangladesh and their representatives in Britain.
MK Malique, the UK president of the country’s main opposition group, Bangladesh Nationalist Party, told MailOnline: ‘If Rishi shows such respect to Sheikh Hasina, this is shameful for the UK, because she is a dictator and there is no rule of law or human rights under her leadership in Bangladesh.
‘Showing such affection is horrible for the UK PM, given her party is exploiting this photo back in Bangladesh, giving the impression it has human rights and democracy.
Supporters of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) attend a mass rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh
‘It undermines our efforts in Bangladesh, who are trying to end her dictatorship and bring democracy. Also, Hasina is openly in favour of Russia, so how can Rishi show such friendliness towards her while the UK and Nato are supporting Ukraine.’
During a meeting with visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov this week, Hasina called for ‘finding a way to stop the Russia-Ukraine war through negotiations and a peaceful manner,’ state-run Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha reported.
In office since 2009, Hasina is the world’s longest-serving female premier, and continues to enjoy significant public support.
Despite rising inflation and other economic challenges, she is widely recognised as the driving force behind improvements in Bangladesh’s economy.
She has been vocal about improving equality between different religions and castes in the country, and in a recent interview with The Economist, said: ‘I want to make this country a hunger-free, poverty-free developed country.’
But, despite Bangladesh being a democracy, experts have said next year’s election is unlikely to be a fair fight and that Hasina will crack down hard on any opposition she faces.
Number 10 has been contacted for comment.