Fourteen members of the U.S. Congress have written to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations expressing concerns over reports of an alleged violent crackdown by the Bangladesh government on opposition parties and other dissidents ahead of general elections likely taking place in January.
In their letter to Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the congressmen and women called for the deployment of U.N. peacekeeping forces during the next general election in Bangladesh to ensure free and fair polls.
They also sought the immediate suspension of Bangladesh’s membership in the U.N. Human Rights Council until an “impartial and transparent” investigation into the government’s alleged crimes against political opponents and others, including journalists, is completed.
“Over the past 6 to 8 months, thousands of peaceful and courageous protesters have demonstrated in support of free and fair elections [in Bangladesh],” the letter stated, referring to the demonstrations by the opposition and pro-democracy activists.
“These demonstrations have often been met by violence, tear gas, and brutal assault by police, other state actors, and supporters of [Prime Minister Sheikh] Hasina.”
In the letter, the congress members also raised concerns about the coming elections, which Hasina and her ministers insist will be free and fair.
“Given its history of election fraud, violence, and intimidation; we are highly skeptical that the Hasina government will permit fair and transparent elections,” the congress members noted in the letter.
Allegations of rigging
The 2014 elections were boycotted by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party or BNP — the largest opposition party in the country. And, in 2018, the elections were marred by allegations of massive rigging by Hasina’s ruling Awami League [AL] party— a charge Hasina repeatedly denied.
France-based exiled Bangladeshi pro-democracy activist Pinaki Bhattacharya said that Hasina “appears incapable” of delivering a free and fair election.
“She made similar promises in 2018. But we ended up witnessing one of the most fraudulent elections in global history, with ballot boxes stuffed overnight on the eve of the election. She has structured her administration, the election commission, and the police force in such a way that they either actively engage in vote rigging or turn a blind eye when it occurs,” Bhattacharya told VOA.
“Sheikh Hasina has consistently dismissed any legitimate evidence from both national and international sources that indicates rampant election rigging. So, how can she claim to have the capacity or, the willingness to hold a free and fair election?”
Demands to ‘step aside’
For several months, the BNP and its allies have been staging a series of demonstrations demanding that Hasina step aside making way for a non-partisan caretaker government before the next general elections take place — a demand her government has rejected.
On Saturday (July 29), tens of thousands of BNP leaders and supporters staged sit-in protests on main roads in Dhaka demanding the resignation of Hasina.
As the protesters tried to resist by throwing stones, police at several locations fired rubber bullets, pellets and teargas at them. Visuals in local TV channels and newspapers showed AL supporters — carrying machetes and sticks — attack and chase away the BNP protesters, in the presence of police.
Scores of protesters, including senior BNP leaders such as Gayeshwar Chandra Roy, Abdus Salam Azad and Ishraq Hossain, were injured during Saturday’s protests. Some police officers were injured too, a police spokesperson said.
The BNP says several of its initially peaceful rallies on political and other issues were violently attacked by the police and AL activists in the past year and 19 of its activists have been killed.
Also in the past year, according to the BNP statistics, more than 25,000 of its leaders and activists have been arrested. The party says police arrested at least 600 BNP protesters in the past week.
A spokesperson of Dhaka Metropolitan Police did not respond to messages from VOA on WhatsApp related to the July 29 clashes with the BNP protesters. The Bangladesh Ministry of Home Affairs, which controls the police, has not responded to requests for comment either.
Taking to the streets
BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said Hasina, while she was in opposition, took to the streets demanding a neutral caretaker government.
“In 1996, the BNP-led government introduced the election-time caretaker government system to the constitution. In 2009, the Awami League-led government amended the constitution and scrapped the system and kept rigging the elections to stay in power. People have lost interest in such sham elections in the country and are staying away from casting their votes,” Alamgir told VOA. “We want people to cast their votes. For this, we have to change the system. There is no alternative but to reintroduce the election-time non-partisan caretaker government system.”
Since last year, the U.S. and other countries have urged the Hasina government to hold the next general election in a free and fair manner.