By Syed Zafar Mehdi

‘Level of mass-rigging in Bangladesh polls unprecedented in history of the country’

January 12, 2019

TEHRAN - Last week, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina retained power with a landslide victory in general elections that were marred by incidents of violence and allegations of rigging.

The main opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) led by Khaleda Zia slammed the election results as "farcical", amid clashes between rival supporters that killed at least 17 people.

Following the announcement of results, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) urged the Bangladesh authorities “to carry out prompt, independent, impartial and effective investigations”.

In an interview to Tehran Times, Bangladeshi blogger and human rights activist Pinaki Bhattacharya, said the level of mass-rigging is perhaps unprecedented in the history of the country. He said the irregularities in this case must be investigated by an independent body.

Following are the excerpts:

Q. Sheikh Hasina was re-elected Bangladesh Prime Minister following her party's landslide win in general elections recently. However, there have been allegations about massive irregularities and rigging. What are your observations?

A: In the real sense no election took place in Bangladesh on December 30. “Vote-rigging” is a pretty mild word to define what happened in Bangladesh that day. The State machineries were put in use to rob the people of their voting rights.

In connivance with the election officials and police, the ruling Awami League party stuffed ballot boxes across most voting centers in the country hours before polling began on December 30 morning.

According to several estimates, around 80 or 90 percent voters were not allowed to enter voting centers or could not cast their vote that day. At most voting centers the ruling party cadres told the voters that they would be allowed to cast their votes only if they voted for the Awami League.
During the run-up to the election the ruling party leaders and activists violently attacked the opposition party election candidates and their supporters to keep them away from electioneering. Interestingly, in many cases the attacks by the ruling party workers took place in the presence of police.

Q. Opposition parties led by BNP accused Sheikh Hasina government of brutal crackdown and rights violations in the run up to elections. Can you tell us what happened?

A: Between 2009 and 2018, at least 90,340 cases were filed against over 2.57 million leaders and workers of the BNP, the largest opposition party in the country. Right now, around 76,000 opposition leaders and workers are behind the bars. In the past decade 1,512 BNP leaders and workers were killed.

In December, when the parties were campaigning for the election, over 12,000 opposition leaders and activists were arrested. Police arrested thousands of activists from the opposition coalition who were to work as polling agents during the election.

Arrests of the polling agents were aimed to keep the opposition representatives away from the voting centers so that the ruling party activists could rig the election smoothly.

Q. United Nations has called for independent and impartial probe into the elections and said those responsible must be held accountable. Do you think that's possible under present circumstances?

A: The vote-rigging took place at over 95% voting centers across the country. This level of mass-rigging is perhaps unprecedented in the history of the country. The irregularities in this case must be investigated by an independent body. The government of Bangladesh is likely to oppose such an investigation. But, it would not be able to place any hurdle if there is enough pressure from the international community, including the United Nations.

Q. Some voters were quoted saying in media that it was a choice between lesser of the two evils. What do you think about Khaleda Zia and her incarceration. Is she a bigger evil?

A: Neither Khaleda Zia nor any member from her family was a candidate in this general election. The opposition coalition was led by a respected personality like Kamal Hossain who does not belong to Zia’s BNP.

Those who demonise Khaleda Zia are actually supporting Awami League’s misrule. I would like to ask them some questions. Was bank reserve siphoned off during the rule of Khaleda Zia? Were as many as 1,677 people extrajudicially killed in the country during the regime of Khaleda Zia? Were 225 billion takas plundered from banks when she was in power?

Q. While for her supporters Sheikh Hasina is an ‘iron lady’, her critics say she believes in high-handedness and suppression of any form of dissent. What is true about her?

A: After some people called Sheikh Hasina a dictator, her son said it was a badge of honor. I have nothing else to comment on this issue.

Q. She hosted Rohingya refugees at a time when many countries in the region refused to accept them or deported them. Doesn't she deserve appreciation for this humanitarian gesture?

A: Sheikh Hasina was forced to provide refuge to the Rohingya people. Her government did not open the border first when the refugees fleeing violence in Myanmar sought to enter Bangladesh. She was forced to allow them entry only after a massive public outcry in Bangladesh support of the Rohingya.

After the border was opened it was largely the people of Bangladesh who provided relief to the refugees. We supplied food and ran medical camps for months for the refugees. Several Bangladeshi and other international relief organizations helped the refugees in Bangladesh.

The taxpayers’ money in the country is used to provide relief to the refugees. Sheikh Hasina should not personally be credited for this support to the Rohingya refugees.     

Q. Now that she is set to take oath as PM for the third time, do you think the government will be unstable given the controversial results?

A: It’s a pretty difficult job to remove such a regime after it takes control of a nation. This regime has resorted to violence to silence its critics. Fear and terror rules the country now. People are too scared to protest against the misrule. This nation has a history of uprising by its people. I am sure they will rise against this regime again on time.  


 

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