In the run up to the Bangladeshi elections expected in January 2024, tensions are high and there has been violence with each side is blaming the other. The incumbent governing party had been cracking down on what it calls political unrest and what its opponents say are free demonstrations for fair elections.
So far 11 people, including two police officers, are known to have died and those injured are said to run into hundreds. A recent demonstration on October 28th was met by a heavy police presence, reported by witnesses to be ‘heavy-handed’.
Meenakshi Ganguly, Deputy Director for Asia at Human Rights Watch commented “Many Bangladeshis say they have been fearing an escalation in violence because of the government crackdown on the political opposition in an attempt to subvert participation and voting.” He went on to say that “Bangladesh’s international partners should insist that elections cannot be considered fair when the opposition is targeted, harassed, and behind bars.” The government has arrested thousands of opposition members and in some cases sealed the party’s offices. This is felt to be a blatant attempt to stifle opposition voices and stop them standing in the elections.
Observers said that both the Awami League (governing party) supporters and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) supporters resorted to violence against each other resulting in hundreds of people including several journalists. This has been denied strenuously by both parties with the BNP accusing the government of using agents provocateurs to stir up trouble and generate violence – thus giving an excuse for further crack downs.
Human Rights Watch has spoken to eye witnesses who claimed that the police used rubber bullets and tear gas excessively to try to control the demonstration. Prior to the rally up to 1,500 opposition members were arrested and some had their homes raided. Checkpoints were also established where they arrested opposition activists on their way to the rally. The BNP claims 5,000 of its members have been arrested and are being held in jail. If convicted this automatically prevents them from being able to stand in the elections and is blatant election rigging. There have been allegations of torture which has been denied by the government.
International concern is growing and the UN office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has also expressed concerns and called for “All political actors to make clear that such violence is unacceptable and to avoid any statements or actions that could constitute incitement to violence.”
The EU has expressed its concern and is not sending an observer to the elections as it does not feel that they will meet the requirements for free and fair elections and thus will not receive its support. Questions have also been raised in the European Parliament about the growing political abuse in Bangladesh and, in addition, the USA has threatened to impose visa restrictions on anyone responsible or complicit in undermining the democratic process in Bangladesh.
The government, however, appears indifferent to both domestic and international condemnation.