An independent and impartial commission should investigate the serious allegations of abuses in the Bangladesh elections, Human Rights Watch said today. The allegations include attacks on opposition party members, voter intimidation, vote rigging, and partisan behavior by election officials in the pre-election period and on election day.
After a campaign marred by violence, mass arrests of the opposition, and a crackdown on free speech, the election commission announced that the ruling Awami League won the December 30, 2018 election, returning Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to a third consecutive term, with the ruling party winning 288 of the 298 parliamentary seats contested. The prime minister said the election was “free and fair,” while the opposition described the election as “farcical.”
“The pre-election period was characterized by violence and intimidation against the opposition, attacks on opposition campaign events, and the misuse of laws to limit free speech,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Reports of ballot stuffing, intimidation of voters, and ruling party control of voting locations on election day mean that an independent and impartial commission should be formed to determine the extent of the violations.”
Thousands of opposition supporters were arrested before the election, and journalists described having to censor their reporting for fear of arrest and violence. The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission required all telecommunication operators to shut down 3G and 4G internet services ahead of the election, preventing communication and information sharing. At least 17 people were killed in violence related to the voting on election day.
Opposition parties, journalists, and voters alleged serious irregularities including ballot stuffing, voters being denied access to polling places, ruling party activists occupying polling places and casting ballots in the place of voters, electoral officials and the police behaving in a partisan manner, and violations of voter privacy in an atmosphere of blatant intimidation. The opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) said its polling agents were denied access in 221 constituencies. Chief Election Commissioner Nurul Huda characterized the reports of electoral violations on polling day as “stray incidents.” Police chief Javed Patwari described the atmosphere as “peaceful.”
Disturbing allegations continue to emerge. Nine people were arrested after a mother of four in Noakhali said she was gang raped because she cast her vote for the opposition. Families held a news conference demanding the safe return of four university students who have not been seen after they were detained in Dhaka on December 29, allegedly by plain clothes security forces. They were finally produced in court on January 2.
Instead of investigating irregularities, Bangladesh authorities arrested journalists for their reporting. On January 1, 2019, plain clothes police officers arrested Hedait Hossain Molla, a Khulna-based correspondent for the Dhaka Tribune, Bangla Tribune, and Probaho. Hossain Molla had reported the total number of votes cast in the Khulna-1 constituency was higher than the total number of actual eligible voters. Journalist Rashidul Islam was also named in the case. The two journalists are accused under the draconian Digital Security Act, which criminalizes peaceful speech and places undue restrictions on investigative journalism.
Journalists were forced to delete videos documenting voter intimidation by Awami League supporters. Kafi Kamal, a reporter with the Daily Manab Zamin said he was beaten up while filming an attack on voters at a polling place. “Sensing presence of a journalist as I was capturing the footage, they attacked me and hit me on my whole body,” he told Human Rights Watch. “I have four stitches on my left eye and intolerable pain in my back.”
A recent Human Rights Watch Report, “Creating Panic: Bangladesh Election Crackdown on Political Opponents and Critics” described a systematic onslaught by Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government and state forces against opposition parties in the months leading up to the election. The Oikya Front opposition alliance reported that over 8,200 of its members and supporters were arrested and 12,300 injured, including dozens of candidates who were attacked by alleged ruling Awami League supporters during the campaign. Opposition leaders said that the authorities, acting in a partisan manner, largely ignored the complaints.
Internationally recognized election monitors and foreign journalists were largely barred from the country. Nevertheless, a BBC journalist in Chittagong captured images of what appear to be stuffed ballot boxes before the polls opened. Other media reported that in some constituencies, in defiance of the rules, polling places closed for lunch in a clear attempt to suppress turnout. Voters in various parts of the country told the media they had been turned away by officials or were joined in the voting booth by ruling party activists, who voted on their behalf. A large number of similar accounts by journalists and other witnesses have emerged from across Bangladesh.
The European Union said that “significant obstacles to a level playing field…throughout the process…have tainted the electoral campaign and the vote,” and called for “a proper examination of allegations of irregularities.”
The British government said it is “aware of credible accounts of obstacles, including arrests, that constrained or prevented campaigning by opposition parties, and of irregularities in the conduct of elections on polling day,” and urged “a full, credible, and transparent resolution of all complaints.”
The United States State Department noted “credible reports of harassment, intimidation, and violence in the pre-election period that made it difficult for many opposition candidates and their supporters to meet, hold rallies, and campaign freely,” and that election-day irregularities “undermined faith in the electoral process.”
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… [t]o 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.”
“International donors, the United Nations and friends of Bangladesh should remember that elections are about the rights of voters, not those in power,” Adams said. “In a highly divided country, questions should immediately be raised when one party wins 96 percent of the seats.”