Bangladesh is about to move into its election year, and the preoccupation of many observers will soon turn to whether, this time, the national vote will be free and fair.
While the Awami League won in 2009 in what was generally considered a fair-ish election, all opposition parties boycotted the 2014 election after the government removed the constitutional requirement for an election time caretaker administration. And the subsequent 2018 election, in which all parties entered, was widely seen as comprehensively rigged by the Awami League government, supported by the police and army.
The 2018 poll had tested the Awami League claims that the country was now capable of holding elections under a political government. It was a test that the government miserably failed, and there is nothing to suggest that three years on anything has changed. The government has if anything become more authoritarian, freedom of speech is further restricted, and its partisan control over the country’s law enforcement and judicial institutions is ever more complete. Though there are reasons to believe that despite its authoritarianism the Awami League is not as unpopular as many might think, the party simply does not dare to risk defeat in an un-rigged election.
The most basic requisite of a free and fair election is that the government in power allows the members, activists and leaders of opposition parties to go about their daily activities of opposing — holding rallies, attending meetings, seeking support from citizens etc. — without fear of harassment or arrest. Yet, events over the last week show how even though the election is still some time away, the government continues to prevent the country’s largest opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), from operating. The situation will surely only get worse as the election nears.
First there was the attempt last week by the BNP to hold a rally in Dhaka. The police baton charged the procession and 44 BNP leaders and activists were arrested. The police never allow the BNP to have peaceful processions, always finding an excuse to arrest activists or a way to provoke violence and prevent rallies from taking place.
Second — and far more significant — was Sunday’s raid on the family home of Sajedul Islam Sumon, a BNP activist who in December 2013 was picked up by Rapid Action Battalion along with five other men and never seen again. Sumon was at the time an opposition leader in Dhaka, and after his disappearance, his family established the campaigning organisation Mayer Dak, comprising families which, like their own, had relatives picked up and disappeared.
The police raid on Sunday took place when a BNP politician, Amanullah Aman, along with other party activists, came to meet Sumon’s mother Hajera Khatun, one of the key organisers of Mayer Dak, who had just recently been released from hospital. Earlier that day, members of Mayer Dak had come to attend a prayer meeting and after this finished, with many families of the disappeared still present, about 30 police officers raided the house, manhandled and beat some of the people present, and arrested 16 BNP activists.
And the reason the police gave to justify the raid? They claimed they had information of a “secret meeting” taking place. Really? A secret meeting in the middle of the day in which the BNP leader and his party supporters arrived in full public gaze?
Is there now a requirement for every BNP leader and activist to inform the police in advance of all of their daily movements — who they plan to meet with and talk to? It would seem so, as this is the only way BNP activists can hold meetings without the risk of police claiming it not to be “secret?”.
The accusation of a “secret meeting” — with its hint of sedition or of planning violence — is a perfect excuse for the police to raid any house they wish to and arrest whichever opposition activists happens to be present.
Bangladesh is not a police state — but for Bangladesh’s opposition leaders and activists, it is pretty close to becoming one. Over the Awami League’s period in power, tens of thousands of BNP activists have been arrested, hundreds if not thousands remain in jail, and they have a constant fear that they will be arrested and charged for made up offences, or indeed even disappeared like Sumon himself and so many other opposition activists like him.
Police around the world are often accused of “arbitrary” arrests, but there is nothing arbitrary about the way Bangladesh police pick up the country’s opposition activists. It is just state policy.
As the election nears, we will begin to hear the Awami League claiming strenuously that the next election will be free and fair. Events this week, however, suggest that the government has already started down the path of a rigged election.●
David Bergman (@TheDavidBergman) — a journalist based in Britain — is Editor, English of Netra News.