Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Bangladesh: letter to FCO Minister Dr Kim Howells MP

From Lord Avebury P0620093

Tel 020-7274 4617

September 20, 2006

Dear Kim,

I expect you have seen the report of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) pre-election delegation to Bangladesh’s 2006/07 Parliamentary elections, published September 11 and available on their website Among their many disturbing findings, they reported evidence that the police react violently and disproportionately to public demonstrations, and as you know, there have been a number of examples only this month, highlighted by Amnesty International in their Press Release ASA 13/008/2006, Bangladesh: Police target outspoken opposition leaders and beat them violently (

Among those badly injured in these attacks was Mr Saber Chowdhury, Political and Organising Secretary to the Leader of the Opposition, Sheikh Hasina, who has had to come to the UK for medical treatment. I met him this evening and he gave me an account of the circumstances in which he was attacked. The police barricaded the Mirpur Road near the Road No 27 intersection in Dhanmondi, to prevent demonstrators getting to the Election Commission Secretariat. Saber Chowdhury was in a small group of about twenty people separate from the crowd, and some 50 m from the barrier. They were doing nothing that would have justified the use of force, and some police were standing near them, taking no action. Then some other police in riot gear crossed from the other side of the barrier, and ran towards the group with batons drawn. The others in the group tried to protect Mr Chowdhury and when the police attacked, they suffered 17 head injuries and some broken bones. He was crouching in the middle of the group when one of the police shouted ‘We’ve got him’, and the TV picked that up. He received a kick in the abdomen, went down, and was repeatedly kicked and hit as he lay on the ground, until he lost consciousness. He was taken to hospital, then flown to Singapore, and finally to London, where he is being treated in King’s College Hospital for neurological problems arising from the blows to his head including abnormalities of vision which may, unhappily, be permanent.

There were many eye witnesses of the event, and sworn statements are available. However, there has been no investigation of the criminal misconduct be the police, and their repeated use of violence on other occasions since then indicates that their behaviour was not that of a few rogue officers, but a concerted policy ordered at very senior level. Will you please ask the Bangladesh government whether there is to be any inquiry into violence by the police? Will you also ask whether there is to be any investigation of the remarkable statistics of RAB operations, in which some 800 people have been killed, but not a single person has been injured or captured?

Over the last 4 ½ years, some 27,000 police have been recruited, entirely from the ranks of BNP and Jamaat activists, and the training period has been reduced to six months. When the caretaker government takes office at the end of October, the force will consist entirely of men loyal to the present coalition government, and the mayhem they will inflict on opposition candidates and supporters can readily be imagined.

The Saturday before last, there were mass arrests of some 180 staff employed by Proshika, an NGO which campaigns for human rights and women’s rights in particular, good governance, and democracy, allegedly on suspicion of their intention to take part in the 14-party opposition demonstration at the Prime Minister’s office on September 12. They apparently had no intention of participating in that event, but if they had, they wouldn’t have been committing any offence.

As you will recall, the Supreme Court ordered the Chief Electoral Commissioner (CEC) to prepare a new register, based on a house to house canvass. The CEC finally pretended to comply with this order, but there have been widespread protests from people who have not been enumerated. Nevertheless there are 11 million more names on the register than the number of eligible voters as calculated from the 2001 census. In one polling district, where there were 1,600 registered voters in 2001, there are 2,100 on the new register, but 1,200 of the people on the 2001 register have not been recorded.

In 2001 there was a computerised register, and the NDI have recommended that the register should be computerised now, and placed on the web so that voters could check that their names had been properly recorded. The reaction of the CEC to this and oter recommendations by the NDI was that Bangladesh is a sovereign country. The current Secretary of the EC is a Jamaat loyalist, who has just said that the EC are planning to regulate the work of both foreign and domestic observers, vetting them for acceptability and prohibiting them from making any public statements.

Apart from the CEC, other members of the EC are Hassan Mansuur, formerly Secretary of the Ministry of Defence, whose Minister is Begum Zia herself; Zakaria, a loyalist who served Ershad and Zia ur Rahman before taking office under the BNP, and a judge with known BNP sympathies. The game plan of the coalition may be to sack the CEC just before the caretaker government takes over, leaving the three remaining commissioners to run the Commission for the benefit of the coalition, but appearing to have made a concession to the universal criticism of the present CEC.

Another sinister development is that the NGO Affairs Bureau controls funds entering Bangladesh provided by aid agencies. This will enable the government to strangle financially any independent NGOs which might have been able to play a useful role in countering or exposing malpractices during the campaign

The NDI report makes a number of recommendations, providing others with a useful checklist for their own assessments of the state of readiness of Bangladesh for a free and fair electoral process. It will be interesting to compare their assessment and recommendations with those of the EU Mission, which has no doubt been informed by the EU Heads of Mission in Dhaka. I checked with the Commonwealth Secretariat today, and they are still planning an assessment mission, though no date for it has yet been agreed. Will you ask the Bangladesh government if they intend to respond to each of the NDI recommendations, or is the statement by the CEC the last word on the matter?

It certainly doesn’t appear that there is the remotest chance of the government, political parties and civil society working together to address deficiencies and build confidence in the electoral process as the NDI suggests. If this is to happen, it must be the government that takes the lead, by dealing promptly and effectively with the criticisms of the Electoral Commission and the Chief Electoral Commissioner in particular; by giving firm orders to the police on the use of minimum force at political demonstrations; by reining in RAB, and by creating the necessary conditions for dialogue with the opposition. We must take a firm line on these matters, if Bangladesh is not to become a failed state,

Dr Kim Howells MP,
Foreign & Commonwealth Office,
London SW1A 2AH.

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