(London) –The Bangladesh government should end its crackdown on the political opposition leaders and activists, and create conditions for free and fair elections, Human Rights Watch said today. Opposition parties should condemn and end violence by their supporters, which have caused hundreds of casualties.
Bangladesh will hold national elections on January 5, 2014. The main opposition alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has announced it will boycott the polls, demanding that they be held under a neutral caretaker government. As a result, 153 of the 300 seats have been left uncontested. Bangladesh authorities are using arbitrary arrests, indiscriminate use of force, and other tactics to keep people from demonstrating against the elections, justifying their actions by pointing to earlier protests that turned violent. At least 120 people have been killed in incidents of pre-election violence, including in firing by security forces, that have not yet been properly investigated.
“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 Brad Adams, Asia Director. “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.”
According to news reports, police statements, and members of the opposition parties, more than a thousand opposition supporters have been arrested since December 24, after the leader of the BNP, Khaleda Zia, called for an anti-government “March for Democracy” to be held in Dhaka on December 29. Many were stopped as they travelled to attend the rally. The Dhaka Metropolitan police had refused permission to hold the demonstration, reasoning that there is a fear of further violence. Security forces were deployed to block protesters from arriving in trains, river ferries, and road transport.
The ruling Awami League leaders called on their supporters to help prevent the rally. According to journalists and confirmed by police statements, government forces used water cannons, rubber bullets, and live ammunition against opposition protesters who battled the police with stones and homemade bombs.
The authorities also clamped down on the leaders of opposition parties ahead of the announced marches. Police stopped Khaleda Zia from leaving her residence to address supporters, and detained several of her senior party colleagues. The government denies she is under house arrest, but observers confirm heavy police presence outside her house, and some of her deputies were temporarily detained after visiting her at home. The leader of the opposition Jatiya Party, Hossain Mohammed Ershad, has been held in a military hospital against his will by security forces since December 12, according to a statement issued by his party. A spokesman for the Rapid Action Battallion (RAB) said that 83-year-old Ershad, the former ruler of the country under a military dictatorship, was unwell but his party has categorically rejected the statement.
“There is little doubt that some opposition supporters have been involved in serious acts of violence, but these mass arrests appear to be simply an attempt to stifle dissent,” Adams said. “The Bangladesh police should prosecute cases where there is compelling evidence, not arbitrarily arrest anyone suspected to be an opposition supporter.”
On December 29, the day of the protest, anyone approaching the headquarters of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party was arrested. Three small rallies were held by opposition-supporting lawyers, journalists, and university teachers at the Supreme Court, the National Press Club and Dhaka University, respectively. Each was broken up by supporters of the Awami League who were armed with bamboo sticks, while the police looked on.
The following day, at least 409 people were brought before the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate’s Court in Dhaka, a court reporter told Human Rights Watch. Of these, most were charged with offences relating to political violence, such as vandalism, arson, holding weapons, or using explosives. Hundreds remained under arrest in other parts of the country according to news reports.
Nearly 30 senior opposition figures have been detained in connection to the violence and many others have been charged. The acting secretary general of the BNP Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir was accused on December 25 along with 39 others, of instigating an attack on a bus in which one policeman died.
Mahbub Uddin Khokon, a BNP member of parliament and senior lawyer, was arrested in the same case. Shortly before his arrest on December 26, he had filed a bail petition in the Dhaka High Court for five senior BNP leaders accused of instigating violence. His petitions stated that the police did not have arrest warrants, and none of the leaders were named in the original police complaint.
There are also allegations that two leaders of the BNP in Comilla district, in eastern Bangladesh, have disappeared after being arrested by the paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). Relatives of former BNP parliamentarian, Saiful Islam Hiru, told Human Rights Watch that he was picked up along with two other men on November 27. One of them was later handed over to the police, and has since told Hiru’s family that he witnessed RAB forces detain Hiru and Humayun Kabir, the chairman of a local BNP committee. RAB denies the arrest.
Leaders of other opposition parties, including the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islaami party, have also reportedly been arrested arbitrarily.“Prosecuting opposition leaders or holding them incommunicado days before a poll are an affront to the idea of fair elections,” said Adams. “Authorities should conduct any criminal cases against opposition figures in a transparent manner, ensuring that defendants’ due process rights are upheld.”
With the opposition continuing its protests, there are ongoing reports of violence across the country. The BNP is trying to enforce a blockade on all transport, and there are reports of ongoing violence including arson attacks.
There are also reports of clashes between supporters of the Jamaat-e-Islami, its student wing, and the law enforcement agencies. There have been several heavy clashes particularly in the district of Satkhira, a Jamaat stronghold, including one on December 30, in which police fired into a mob of 50 violent protesters, killing a BNP leader.
Bangladesh’s international partners, including the US, UK, and India, have urged the political parties to end this violent stalemate. In December, United Nations Assistant Secretary General Oscar Fernandez-Taranco attempted to broker talks to end the crisis to no avail.
“Bangladesh is heading into the new year with violence at the polls and human rights protections missing in action,” said Brad Adams. “The international community should remind Bangladesh that the world is watching and that the deteriorating rights climate cannot continue.”