As predicted, Bangladesh plunged into a political abyss after the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and governing Awami League simultaneously held rallies choking busy streets in the heart of the capital Dhaka on October 28, which has been marred in violence and street anarchy.
The opposition has demanded that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina should step down and the national elections should be held under an interim government to ensure free, fair, credible and inclusive polls planned in January 2024.
Hasina, the daughter of Bangladesh’s independence hero Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, has been the longest serving women prime minister in the world. She has been in power since 2009 and has been accused of targeting political opponents, dissidents, critics and journalists, which she categorically denies.
Moreover, blaming the opposition BNP for anarchism, the pro-establishment news organisations, apologetic Awami League leadership, the government, and law enforcement failed to foresee an impending political violence, which would usher in a political crisis that was approaching like a cyclonic storm.
As hundreds of opposition senior leaders and members were detained and accused of rioting, death of policemen and damaging properties including buses, the United States ambassador to Bangladesh, Peter Haas, hoped that all sides would engage in a “dialogue” without preconditions to de-escalate tensions and find a path forward to free, fair and peaceful elections.
In response to the United States’ call for dialogue, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina responding to journalists, rejected holding any dialogue with the opposition and said, “How can we meet and have dialogue with murderers.”
Hinting the government has taken a hard line with the opposition, she said “The BNP is a ‘terrorist organisation’ and they will be taught the lesson they need to be taught.”
In response to a question at the press conference on November 31, on how to deal with the violence, she said she would “burn the hands of those who start the fire.”
Amid a crackdown on opposition politicians and deadly protests, Bangladesh’s main opposition party BNP, whose top leadership is either jailed or in exile, is betting that if Hasina does not resign and allow in a caretaker government, boycotting the January election will de-legitimise any win for her and possibly invite international sanctions, the spokesperson said. BNP boycotted the 2014 election too but participated in 2018, reports Reuters.
What is damaging for the government’s credibility is that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) suspected ruling party supporters were also involved in the violence that gripped Dhaka city on October 28 during rallies by major political parties.
“We urge the Government to observe the greatest restraint to curb political tensions at this critical time, and to take steps to ensure that human rights are fully upheld, for all Bangladeshis, before, during and after the elections,” said OHCHR.
On the other hand, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calls on all parties to refrain from violence or any excessive use of force or arbitrary detention. He also stresses the need to respect the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a strongly worded statement on November 1 quoted witnesses to accuse the Bangladesh police of unnecessary use of (excessive) force during political protests on October 28.
The watchdog did not hesitate to say the violence was committed on all sides, the events were part of a continuing police crackdown on the political opposition.
HRW claims at least 1,500 opposition members were arrested in the days leading up to the rally and BNP leaders said that the authorities raided party members’ homes. Nearly a dozen opposition members were shot and killed by police in the last four days.
According to the opposition, nearly 5,000 party leaders and activists have been arrested since similar protests took place in July, while tens of thousands have been accused in hundreds of additional cases.
The US rights watchdog appeals that all allegations of torture and other abuse of detainees should be thoroughly and independently investigated, and those responsible should be held to account.
Whereas, according to Mohammad A. Arafat, an academic turned politician in a post on Twitter (now X), the General Secretary of Awami League has been saying for more than a month that we are ready for dialogue without any pre-condition but BNP responded negatively. Now that Mr. [Peter] Haas proposed a dialogue without any condition, let’s see whether BNP listens to their “trusted friend”.
Is the idea of ‘No-Pre-Conditioned’ dialogue being floated because of the failed attempt on October 28? Who from BNP is going to be available for dialogue, I wonder! Or, this offer of dialogue is to get some kind of amnesty for the perpetrators, he asked.
In September, the European Union notified the Bangladesh government that it would not send a full election observer mission to the polls in January, stating that the decision “reflects the fact that at the present time, it is not sufficiently clear whether the necessary conditions will be met.”
The European Parliament also raised the alarm about growing abuses in Bangladesh, putting into question its eligibility for EU trade benefits under the “Everything But Arms” programme. Mass arrests targeting the opposition further undermine the conditions for a fair election.
The United States pre-election assessment mission has called upon political parties as well as other stakeholders in Bangladesh to initiate a substantive dialogue on key election issues, intending to ensure a credible, inclusive, and violence-free election.
The assessment team, which comprises representatives of the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), made the call through a publication from Washington on Saturday.
The United States has said it will “impose visa restrictions on Bangladeshi individuals responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh.”
The OHCHR and Human Rights Watch statements were not only damaging but have severely embarrassed the government.
On 28 October, the Dhaka Metropolitan Police headquarters denied Jamaat-e-Islami’s (JeI’s) permission to hold a rally on the same day in the downtown Motijheel, a hub of all nationalised banks, insurance and trade bodies head offices.
Surprisingly police did not disperse the Islamist party rally held at Arambagh, near the downtown.
Salauddin Babar, acting editor of Dainik Naya Diganta, an Islamist newspaper explained why police did not want to disperse or block the JeI’s rally and said the government possibly did not want to open a second front battling two political parties in the streets.
Babar having closed ties with JeI leadership denied any deal with the government and remarked it was wise of the government to avoid battling JeI, which would have provoked other Islamists to join the street protest.
Jamaat-e-Islami for a long hiatus has lent political support for the nationwide hartal (shutdown) on the following day of police crackdown and four-day blockade of roads, train and river communications for October 30-31 and November 1-2 called by BNP and its alliance.
Interestingly, JeI has not been invited by the BNP to join the alliance for their movement asking Hasina to quit and hold elections under an interim government.
On the fifth day (Wednesday), at least 11 people, including two police officers, were killed, and hundreds injured including 30 journalists were heckled and harassed by riot police and attacked by opposition and governing party hooligans during the October 28 and ongoing violence that has followed.
Nevertheless, the police, opposition and Awami League denied their involvement in attacking journalists and damaging or seizure of mobile phones, cameras and video equipment.
Meanwhile, Australia, Canada, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States in a joint statement on the recent political violence have called for restraint.
A joint statement issued by the diplomatic missions of these countries in Bangladesh said, “We call on all stakeholders to exercise restraint, eschew violence and work together to create the conditions for free, fair, participatory, and peaceful elections.”
The Bangladesh government is ignoring international calls for restraint and its pledges to hold a peaceful, free, and fair election. National elections are planned for January 2024, stated HRW.
Human Rights Watch has called upon Bangladesh’s international partners to insist that elections cannot be considered fair when the opposition is targeted, harassed, and behind bars.
POSTSCRIPT: In the last few days, Bangladesh police clashed with thousands of garment workers demanding fair wages for the clothing they make for major Western brands. Police said tens of thousands of workers in the country’s largest industrial city, firing tear gas and rubber bullets as agitating workers smashed up factories and blocked roads. The protests left at least two people dead.
- Saleem Samad is an award-winning independent journalist based in Bangladesh. A media rights defender with the Reporters Without Borders (@RSF_inter). Recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at [email protected]; Twitter: @saleemsamad