(New York) – Bangladesh authorities should immediately end arbitrary arrests of opposition party members and others, Human Rights Watch said today. Arrests have continued even after the ruling Awami League party and its allies won the largely uncontested elections held on January 5, 2014. The United States, European Union, and others refused to send observers to Bangladesh’s divisive polls.
Dozens and perhaps hundreds of opposition leaders and members were taken into custody before the elections, which were boycotted by the main opposition alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). BNP leader and two-time former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia was placed under de facto house arrest, with security forces surrounding her residence and blocking people from entering and leaving. Many opposition leaders and activists have gone into hiding.
“While in some cases the government has acted appropriately to stop violence by some opposition forces, this spate of arrests is part of a pattern of weakening critics, limiting dissent, and consolidating ruling party power,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Awami League claims that it is the leading democratic party in Bangladesh, but there is nothing democratic about this kind of widespread crackdown on critics.”
As many as 150 people have been killed in political violence in recent months, much of it carried out by opposition activists. The Election Commission said that nearly 500 voting centers had to be closed because of the violence, including arson. Awami League activists have also engaged in attacks on opposition supporters.
Attacks on Hindu communities, allegedly by supporters of the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami, have been reported in the media. Many Hindus, Bangladesh’s largest religious minority, traditionally vote for the governing Awami League Party.
At least 18 people died as a result of election-day violence, many of them having been shot by the police, according to media sources.
Police arrested eight BNP politicians in Dhaka on January 7, although five were later released. Three have been charged with inciting violence before the election. BNP Vice-Chair Selima Rahman was arrested after addressing a press conference on January 7. Khandaker Mahbub Hossain, a senior advisor to the BNP president, was held shortly after giving a speech denouncing the election. The police have accused them and a former member of parliament, Fazlul Haq Milon, of inciting violence. A court on January 8 ordered Khandaker Mahbub Hossain and Fazlul Haq Milon to be held in custody for two days, pending a further hearing. Rahman was denied bail and sent to jail.
Arrests in election run-up
Many senior opposition leaders from the BNP and thousands of activists were arrested in the run-up to the elections. The leader of the smaller Jatiya Party, former military dictator 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.
In an illustrative case, on November 8, police arrested five BNP leaders including former Prime Minister Moudud Ahmed. The following day they were charged with inciting their supporters to hold violent protests, including arson. Their lawyers say the police did not have warrants to arrest the men and say their names were not mentioned in the original police complaint. On December 26, their lawyer, Mahbub Uddin Khokon, who is also a BNP parliamentarian, was arrested on his way home from a bail hearing at the Dhaka High Court. His lawyers say he was questioned at the Detective Branch office that evening without being informed of any charges against him. The next day he learned that he had been accused of involvement in the fire bombing of a bus in which one police officer died. He was not mentioned in the initial police complaint, although 12 other opposition leaders were named along with 18-20 “unidentified persons.”
Ahead of a December 29 BNP “March for Democracy,” hundreds were arrested. The aide of one BNP member of parliament said he helped organize the transport of some 200 supporters into the capital, but all of them were arrested. After they paid bribes to the police they were told to go home that evening, he said.
One of the party’s vice-presidents, Hafizuddin Ahmed, was picked up after shortly after he held a press conference on December 29. Other prominent figures were held after they visited the BNP leader’s house or the party headquarters.
Leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami party report being threatened with arrest. Many of its members have been arrested, while others have gone into hiding. The Jamaat party was earlier disqualified from participating in the polls after the Supreme Court and the Election Commission ruled that its charter ran contrary to Bangladesh’s secular constitution. Senior members of the party report having police come to their homes seeking to arrest them on the basis of First Information Reports based on falsified evidence.
The international community has urged Bangladesh political leadership to initiate dialogue that will end the political violence. In a statement, UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon said he regretted that the parties had not reached an agreement before the elections and called on all sides to ensure a peaceful environment, “where people can maintain their right to assembly and expression.” Many governments issued statements criticizing the conduct of the election. The United States, Canada, Germany, and others have called for credible elections to resolve the ongoing crisis.
Human Rights Watch urged the international community to pressure the authorities to end arbitrary arrests while allowing peaceful protest and full rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly, and movement.
“The ruling party keeps saying it welcomes dialogue with the opposition, but in light of the ongoing crackdowns, it is impossible to take that statement seriously,” Adams said. “To resolve the current political deadlock, all parties have to make commitments to end political violence, while the international community needs to ramp up pressure for a political settlement that involves a credible election.”