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Police rush Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) supporters at a protest on February 9, 2018, Dhaka, Bangladesh. © 2018 Allison Joyce/Getty Images

(New York) – Bangladesh security forces have been arresting and intimidating opposition figures and threatening freedom of expression in advance of national elections on December 30, 2018, Human Rights Watch said today. The United Nations, European Union, United States, India, China, and others should press the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed to create conditions conducive to a free and fair vote and to prevent campaign violence.

Human Rights Watch research from October to early December found repeated instances of arbitrary security force arrest and detention of protesters and political opposition figures, and acts of violence and intimidation by members of the ruling party’s student and youth wings. The crackdown, and the broad and vaguely worded laws that facilitate it, are contributing to an environment of fear. Institutions including the judiciary and the national election commission do not appear to be fully prepared to independently and fairly resolve disputes around campaigns and elections, such as on registration, candidacies, and results.

“The Awami League government has been systematically cracking down on independent and opposition voices to ensure that the ruling party faces no obstacles to total political control,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Members and supporters of the main opposition parties have been arrested, killed, even disappeared, creating an atmosphere of fear and repression that is not consistent with credible elections.”

The Bangladesh authorities should end the crackdown on the political opposition and on free expression ahead of the national elections to ensure Bangladeshis their internationally protected right to choose their government.

Serious problems with the electoral process include surveillance, intimidation, detention, and politically motivated prosecution of key opposition members including party polling agents. Other major concerns include a crackdown on independent media and repressive laws restricting speech, association, and assembly.

There is a blanket of fear spreading over this country and I don’t know when we are going to be freed.

The intensified crackdown began in September. According to the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the authorities have brought more than 300,000 politically motivated criminal cases against its party members and supporters and thousands have been arrested. Supporters of the joint opposition group Oikya Front (United Front) have been targeted. Members of the Jamaat-e-Islami political party, which is disqualified from running for elections, have also been arrested. According to a Jamaat spokesperson, 1,858 of its members were arrested between November 1 and December 13.

Allegations against opposition leaders appear arbitrary. BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir is facing 46 cases. A standing committee member, Mirza Abbas, faces 42 cases. And the BNP candidate Saiful Alam Nirob, who is running against the home minister, is facing 267 cases.

While Chief Election Commissioner KM Nurul Huda said he wanted to ensure “everyone follows the electoral code of conduct,” opposition parties accuse the commission of backing the ruling party. For instance, while only three ruling Awami League candidates were disqualified, 141 from the BNP were rejected.

Anticipating that there might arbitrary disqualifications, the BNP nominated multiple candidates in most constituencies. Lt. Gen. (ret.) Mahbubur Rahman, a member of the BNP standing committee, told the Daily Star, “We feared that the government would create many obstacles, like influencing the Election Commission to cancel nomination papers of our candidates to keep us away from the election.”

With candidates starting to campaign, scores of people have already been injured during political rallies in clashes between rival party supporters. All party leaders should call upon their supporters to refrain from violence. The government should order security forces to use proportionate measures to prevent the imminent threat of death or serious injury, to play an impartial role, and to promptly investigate all credible complaints of violations.

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.”

“Governments concerned for Bangladesh’s future should denounce abuses leading up to the elections, which will deny voters their rights,” Adams said. “The Awami League, which came into office unchallenged five years ago, has since made a mockery of democratic rights, and now donors should make every effort to restore human rights protections.”

Barriers to Genuine Elections in Bangladesh in 2018

After boycotting the previous national elections of 2014, the main opposition parties of Bangladesh have said that they will participate in the December 30 elections, even though the government rejected their demand for a neutral authority to conduct elections, as in 2014. The primary opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is backing a civil society-led initiative to form a political coalition called the Oikya Front (United Front).

However, as Bangladesh waits to vote, repressive measures including widespread surveillance and a crackdown on speech have contributed to a widely described climate of fear, extending from prominent people to ordinary citizens. This and other actions by the ruling Awami League government have created conditions that will undermine the credibility of the elections.

Targeting Political Opposition

Thousands of cases, under a variety of laws, have been filed against leaders and supporters of opposition parties, especially the BNP. The authorities have similarly targeted several of those involved in an effort by civil society leaders to form the Oikya Front. Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamic political party, although disqualified from contesting, alleges that hundreds of its activists have been detained without reason.

The BNP has filed a lawsuit challenging the charges against its members, contending that accusations against many of them are identical, with little more than names, dates, and locations of the purported incidents changed in an otherwise fixed format. It alleges that likely candidates and the party’s polling place monitors are among those charged. According to BNP Senior Joint Secretary General Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, nearly 300,000 leaders and activists have been implicated in 3,000 such “false and fabricated” cases.

In many cases, the charges appear to be groundless. In fact, numerous cases have come to light in which accused people are either dead or were abroad or hospitalized at the time of the alleged offense. On October 17, a year to the day after he died, Zasim Uddin Chaudhary, a BNP supporter, was charged with throwing gasoline bombs in Chittagong. Nasrul Islam, who was indicted on September 5, had died five days earlier. Mintu Kumar Das, a Dhaka BNP leader charged with blocking a road on September 11, died in 2007.

Following reports of charges of “planning subversive activities” against people who are dead, abroad, or paralyzed, the inspector general of police, Mohammad Javed Patwary, ordered unit commanders to investigate how these mistakes had been made.

A number of opposition candidates have been attacked in recent days. On December 12, Afroza Khanam Rita, a BNP candidate from Manikganj-3, was attacked while visiting a shrine, allegedly by youth-wing members of the ruling Awami League. In Thakurgaon, the motorcade of BNP Secretary General Fakhrul was attacked on December 11, while he was campaigning. Vehicles accompanying another BNP candidate, Sharifuzzaman Sharif, were attacked on December 10.

Reports of campaign violence, mainly targeting opposition candidates and their supporters, are rapidly multiplying. In many cases the police reportedly denied any knowledge of the incidents.

Several of those arrested during the recent crackdown have said that they were physically abused in custody. In four of the six cases Human Rights Watch investigated, detainees said that they were beaten up after they had been taken to court and then sent back to police custody instead of jail. In the other two cases, the abuse occurred during illegal detention. The abuses described include beating with fists, plastic pipes, or sugar canes; crushing body parts against the floor; and partial drowning.

On March 6, Zakir Hossain Milon, the 38-year-old president of the BNP for the Tejgaon district in Dhaka, was arrested while returning from a “human chain” protest demanding fair elections outside the National Press Club, and later transferred to Shahbagh police station. When he was taken to court on March 11, he told relatives that he had been tortured “a lot,” and asked them to “take care of my [two] kids, I don’t know what’s going to happen.” He died in jail the following day. His family said that his body was covered with black marks and his fingernails had been removed.

Supporters of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, including members of its student wing Islami Chhatra Shibir, have been arrested, and witnesses said that many have been held in secret detention and tortured. A member of Jamaat’s student wing told Human Rights Watch that while he was in the custody of the police Detective Branch earlier in 2018, his interrogators used a stapler on his ears, beat him severely with sticks including on the leg joints and hands, subjected him to simulated drowning, and told him he would be shot.

Denying Freedom of Expression and Association

The pre-election crackdown has been accompanied by suppression of dissent and criticism. A leading member of civil society told Human Rights Watch: “In terms of media space and civil society space, I don’t think we’ve ever had such a bad situation. Even under previous military regimes people had the right to speak up.”

The authorities have used a number of broadly worded laws arbitrarily to constrain journalists, restrict free speech of ordinary citizens, and target the government’s opponents and critics.

Prior to changes to the law in October, authorities used section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act to jail government critics. Targets of section 57 included Shahidul Alam, a prominent photographer and social activist who was arrested on August 5 and spent 107 days in jail for describing police violence against student protesters on Facebook. He said he was beaten in police custody. Maidul Islam, a Chittagong University professor, was jailed on September 24 for 37 days for his Facebook posts.

People have been arrested for criticizing the government on social media, or even for liking or sharing content. For instance, Nusrat Jahan Sonia, a 25-year-old primary school teacher, was arrested in August and accused of “spreading rumors” simply because she had shared a Facebook post about student protests. Although she was seven months pregnant, her detention was renewed twice before she was eventually released after more than two weeks in jail.

In October, section 57 of the ICT Act was replaced by the Digital Security Act (DSA), which provides even more broadly drawn restrictions on freedom of expression and draconian custodial sentences. Bangladesh’s Editors’ Council, an association of newspaper editors, has said that the law effectively prohibits investigative journalism or publishing anything that could “irritate,” “humiliate,” “embarrass,” or “discredit” the subject of the reporting.

Journalists are under pressure to self-censor or risk arrest, charged under laws ranging from criminal defamation to sedition. A newspaper editor told Human Rights Watch that he currently publishes only “10 to 20 percent” of the news at his disposal. “You have a culture of fear, an environment of fear,” he said. Another newspaper editor estimated that about 50 percent of content is self-censored. A journalist told Human Rights Watch, “There is a blanket of fear spreading over this country and I don’t know when we are going to be freed.”

I don’t think we’ve ever had such a bad situation. Even under previous military regimes people had the right to speak up.

Human rights groups, already constrained by restrictive legislation, are under severe pressure. A human rights activist told Human Rights Watch that his organization is kept under surveillance and that he has had intimidating visits from intelligence agents. “They want to silence dissenting voices,” he said.

Professors describe a climate of fear, intimidation, and surveillance on university campuses. “My friends and family are fearing there will be more attacks,” said a person who was targeted by members of the Awami League. “It’s a state of fear. A few people still speak, but I don’t know for how long.”

On October 11, police lodged a complaint against Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury, a well-known public health activist who is also involved in opposition politics, in connection with critical remarks he made about the army chief on a television talk show. The Detective Branch of the police is also investigating Chowdhury for treason.

Internet Surveillance and Violating Privacy

On October 9, the government announced that it had formed a nine-member monitoring cell to detect “rumors” on social media. This cell joins a proliferating number of units and agencies seeking to censor the internet, monitor online communications, and detain users accused of “spreading rumors” or “anti-state activity.” A media report said that “one hundred police teams” operating under the police headquarters’ cybercrime unit have been deployed around the country and “provided with necessary cyber monitoring tools” to monitor social media.

It is especially alarming that the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a paramilitary force implicated in serious human rights violations including extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, has been tasked with monitoring social media for “anti-state propaganda, rumors, fake news, and provocations.” On November 23, members of RAB detained a PhD student, Enamul Haque Mony, as he attempted to fly from Dhaka to his university in South Korea. He was accused of spreading false and anti-government news on the internet.

Both the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission and the Home Ministry’s National Telecommunication Monitoring Center are seeking bids to set up so-called deep packet inspection facilities capable of surveillance and blocking internet activity in the country. On December 10, after 58 news websites were shut down for several hours, the Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu called it a “trial run.” “Similar shutdowns will continue against news portals that publish and circulate fake and baseless news reports,” he warned.

 “The intelligence [services], the police, they are taking full control,” a newspaper editor told Human Rights Watch.

Allegations of Election Commission Bias

In addition to BNP allegations of Election Commission bias and arbitrary disqualification of a number of its candidates, international funders have pulled their financial support for the commission.

In 2014, backers of a massive development program aimed at strengthening democracy in Bangladesh withdrew its financial assistance to the Election Commission due to concerns over its performance and commitment to a nonpartisan role. The program was financed by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), and carried out in partnership the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and others.

An evaluation by the UK agency noted that “since 2013, the ECB [Election Commission of Bangladesh] has struggled to maintain its credibility,” and questioned whether the commission had “a clear agenda and proven will for reform.” The UK agency said that the commission had failed to undertake “electoral reforms that would create greater transparency; for example, audits of the voter registry, engagement on campaign financing issues or improving public knowledge on key election issues.”

A subsequent US$20 million project financed by the UK agency is not supporting the Election Commission. Program documents say that DFID concluded that “the current Commissioners have not sustained the public perceptions of independence from political influence.”

Partisan Role of Security Forces, Institutions

Law enforcement authorities have illegally detained scores of opposition activists and others, holding some of them secretly without taking them before courts, as the law requires. In 2017, Odhikar, a Dhaka-based human rights organization, recorded 86 cases of enforced disappearance. As of November, it had recorded an additional 71 cases in 2018.

Sometimes the victims are later released or produced in court, but in some cases, they are later found dead.

Odhikar recorded 12 cases of enforced disappearance in November. On November 18, men claiming to be from the police Detective Branch detained Shohagh Bhuiyan, a member of the BNP student wing. On November 26, men claiming to be from the Detective Branch detained Mohammad Rabiul Awal Shohagh, an online activist, in Comilla district. The whereabouts of both men remain unknown.

The judiciary is also under political pressure and threat from security and intelligence agencies, independent Bangladeshi lawyers and activists have said. In a recent autobiography, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha, who fell out with the government over judicial reforms, alleged crude attempts by military intelligence officers to influence the outcome of politically sensitive cases. A law professor told Human Rights Watch that “there is undue influence of the law secretary on the lower court judges,” and described cases in which judges have been transferred for ruling against the security agencies.

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