Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Bangladesh elections

Lord Avebury, vice-chair of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group, chairing a seminar on Bangladesh: logjam on the road to free and fair elections in Committee Room 3A, House of Lords, September 27, 2006 at 11.00, said:

With only a month to go before the caretaker government takes office for the period leading up to the elections in January 2007, the prospects for free and fair elections in Bangladesh are looking bleak.

The US National Democratic Institute has already referred to the incompetence and bias of the National Electoral Commission, all four of whose members were previously activists of parties belonging to the coalition government. After being ordered to compile a new voters’ register based on a house-to-house canvass, the EC has come up with a list containing 11 million more names than there were on the 2001 register plus the young people who reached the age of 18 during those years. But there are also millions of eligible voters who haven’t been canvassed or recorded. This is mass-produced fraud in the making, which must be exposed and corrected.

I am glad to see that the prospects for a dialogue between government and opposition on electoral reforms have brightened, and I hope they can be widened to include the manipulation of the retirement age of judges, to secure the appointment of a former BNP activist, Justice K M Hasan, as head of the caretaker government. The BNP say that he was never criticised for bias as a supreme court judge, and if he had got to the top position by a normal process of succession, perhaps his party political past would have been less controversial. But he stands at the apex of a system of manipulation and violence designed to keep the coalition in power. How much of this can be dismantled, so late in the day, and is there the will to reverse the politicisation of the EC, police, army and administration?

And that’s not all. The NDI commented on the ‘rampant and escalating violence’ of recent times, including the assassination of Shah AMS Kibria, a former Finance Minister; the attempt on the life of our High Commissioner; the multiple grenade attack on the Leader of the Opposition, Sheikh Hasina, which killed 24 people; the suicide bombing of two judges, and the simultaneous explosion of 500 bombs all over the country in August 2005.

In addition to those terrorist atrocities, 800 people have been killed by the ‘Rapid Action Battalion’ forces in encounters and shootouts, but not a single person has been captured or injured in those incidents. Last week the Home Minister Lutfozzaman Babar issued instructions to the police to wind up inquiries into the RAB killings before the caretaker government assumes office in a month’s time, making it virtually impossible for any prosecutions to be mounted against RAB officers.

And in the last month, there has been an escalation of violence by the police against political demonstrators, including the notorious attack on Mr Saber Hossain Chowdhury, Political and Organising Secretary to the Leader of the Opposition, causing him injuries that were so severe that he had to come here to seek advice from a neurologist.

Two MPs were also badly injured in attacks by the police - Asaduzzaman Noor, and Mohammed Nasim. We are preparing to submit formal complaints on their behalf to the Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. We also know of at least two women who suffered injuries at a demo on September 12: Mothia Chowdhury and Advocate Shaira Khatun, and it may be that we can also get the material for a complaint to the UN Rapporteur on Violence against Women. The police must have been given orders to target opposition leaders, as Amnesty International highlighted in a recent press release. The violence has got even worse since then, and I believe it is part of a deliberate campaign to incapacitating opposition leaders and activists in advance of the election.

There have been other sinister developments in the last month. 821 recently appointed police officers, whose basic training was curtailed so that they could be deployed during the caretaker administration, have now been appointed as sub-inspectors without the in-service 18 months’ training normally required for command posts. Most of the men were activists of the youth wing of the ruling BNP and of their coalition partner Jamaat-e-Islami, and some had been arrested for extremist activities including a bomb outrage. These are the men who will be responsible for law and order during the campaign, and the mayhem they will let loose on opposition candidates and activists can readily be imagined.

The NGO Affairs Bureau, which controls aid agency funds granted to Bangladeshi NGOs, has been established to financially strangle any independent NGOs which might blow the whistle on malpractices and violence, while at the same time the BNP and Jamaat are busy registering bogus election observation NGOs, whose verdict can be predicted in advance. Proshika, a secular development NGO which had attracted substantial foreign aid for their programmes including micro-credit and agriculture, was raided on September 9 and 180 of its staff arrested, effectively closing it down and causing losses of tens of thousands of pounds.

At the end of last week a European Union mission returned from Dhaka, where they were looking into the advisability, feasibility and usefulness of an EU observation of the election when the time comes. If they do send observers, they will be vetted for acceptability by the Secretary of the EC, a former Jamaat activist, and it will be interesting to see whether they accept that condition.

The Commonwealth Secretariat are also sending a pre-election assessment mission, if they can get the agreement of the authorities in Dhaka. An earlier attempt to send a mission in June had to be aborted because the BNP said that Ministers were too busy to receive them.

Unfortunately, the advice given by NGOs or intergovernmental bodies on clean elections will be ignored. The last thing the coalition want is a free election which they would almost certainly lose, and in the next three months there is likely to be a crescendo of violence and malpractice designed to ensure they stay in power. But its still important that friends of Bangladesh tell the world how the election is being hijacked, and send a message of solidarity to the democrats who are under siege.

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