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Bangladesh election abuses need independent probe: HRW

03 January 2019,Thursday, 19:50



Staff Correspondent

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said an independent and impartial commission should be formed to investigate the serious allegations of abuses in the Bangladesh elections.

“The allegations include attacks on opposition party members, voter intimidation, vote rigging, and partisan behaviour by election officials in the pre-election period and on election day,” said the rights group in a statement issued to the press on Wednesday.

"An independent and impartial commission should investigate the serious allegations of abuses in the Bangladesh elections," it said.

“After a campaign marred by violence, mass arrests of the opposition, and a crackdown on free speech, the election commission announced that the ruling Awami League won the December 30 election, returning Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to a third consecutive term, with the ruling party winning 288 of the 298 parliamentary seats contested. The prime minister said the election was “free and fair,” while the opposition described the election as “farcical,” read the statement.

“The pre-election period was characterised by violence and intimidation against the opposition, attacks on opposition campaign events, and the misuse of laws to limit free speech,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“Reports of ballot stuffing, intimidation of voters, and ruling party control of voting locations on election day mean that an independent and impartial commission should be formed to determine the extent of the violations,” he said.

The rights watchdog in its statement mentioned that thousands of opposition supporters were arrested before the election, and journalists described having to censor their reporting for fear of arrest and violence.

“Opposition parties, journalists, and voters alleged serious irregularities including ballot stuffing, voters being denied access to polling places, ruling party activists occupying polling places and casting ballots in the place of voters, electoral officials and the police behaving in a partisan manner, and violations of voter privacy in an atmosphere of blatant intimidation,” it also said.

However, Chief Election Commissioner KM Nurul Huda characterised the reports of electoral violations on polling day as “stray incidents” while Police Chief Javed Patwari described the atmosphere as “peaceful”, the rights organisation mentioned.

Disturbing allegations continue to emerge, HRW also said in the statement, adding that several people were arrested after a mother of four in Noakhali said she was gang raped because she cast her vote for the opposition.

Families of four university students alleged they have not been seen after being detained in Dhaka on December 29, allegedly by plain clothes security forces. They were finally produced in court on January 2, the statement read.

Instead of investigating irregularities, Bangladesh authorities arrested journalists for their reporting, it added.

On January 1, 2019, plain clothes police officers arrested Hedayet Hossain Mollah, a Khulna-based correspondent for the Dhaka Tribune, Bangla Tribune, and Probaho, in a case filed for allegedly reporting the total number of votes cast in the Khulna-1 constituency to be higher than the total number of actual eligible voters, HRW said, adding that another journalist Rashidul Islam was also named in the case.

The two journalists are accused under the draconian Digital Security Act, which criminalises peaceful speech and places undue restrictions on investigative journalism, the rights body observed.

HRW statement said that journalists were forced to delete videos documenting voter intimidation by AL supporters. Kafi Kamal, a reporter with the Daily Manab Zamin, said he was beaten up while filming an attack on voters at a polling place, it said.

“Sensing presence of a journalist as I was capturing the footage, they attacked me and hit me on my whole body,” he told Human Rights Watch. “I have four stitches on my left eye and intolerable pain in my back.”

According to a recent HRW report titled “Creating Panic: Bangladesh Election Crackdown on Political Opponents and Critics”, a systematic onslaught by Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League-led government and state forces against opposition parties in the months led up to the election in which internationally recognised election monitors and foreign journalists were largely barred from the country, the statement read.

“The Oikya Front opposition alliance reported that over 8,200 of its members and supporters were arrested and 12,300 injured, including dozens of candidates who were attacked by alleged ruling Awami League supporters during the campaign. Opposition leaders said that the authorities, acting in a partisan manner, largely ignored the complaints.”

The HRW also observed that a BBC journalist in Chittagong captured images of what appear to be stuffed ballot boxes before the polls opened. Voters in various parts of the country told the media they had been turned away by officials or were joined in the voting booth by ruling party activists, who voted on their behalf.

The statement mentioned that the Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Bangladesh is a party, states, “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity… [to] vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.”

“International donors, the United Nations and friends of Bangladesh should remember that elections are about the rights of voters, not those in power,” HRW Asia Director Brad Adams said.

“In a highly divided country, questions should immediately be raised when one party wins 96 percent of the seats,” he added.

 

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