Repressive Politics in Bangladesh

Photo Source: The New York Times

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Up Front

Called as the iron lady, Sheikh Hasina has been acclaimed by her ardent followers, for doing economic wonders for the country, for nearly ten years.

In the 2014 election, her party won two hundred thirty four seats, out of three hundred seats, despite the strong anti-incumbency factor, according to several independent observers. In 2018, her party strongly retained two hundred forty six seats in the parliament.

In 2016, when Jammatul Mujahideen attacked a Dhaka bakery killing 22 people, she was acclaimed for cracking these extremists down. For allowing the ethnically cleansed Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, to stay in the southeast of her country, her fans believed that she should be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.

During her rule, she also launched trials of powerful Islamist opposition for crimes committed during the 1971 independence war. When five top Islamist leaders and the main opposition loyalists were executed, it launched deadly clashes and frequent mass protests in her country. For her critics, Mrs Hasina is an autocrat, who has largely muzzled dissent in a calculated manner. More specifically, she likes to keep religion based voters on trial.

What has led to a series of controversies, pre-election in 2018, was her unsparing crackdown on people, that ranged from convictions and arrests of opposition candidates. Activists and protestors were subjected to harassments and surveillance. There was an initiative of a draconian ‘digital security law’ that includes prison terms for posting ‘aggressive and frightening content’, according to statist narratives. According to this law, Section 25(a) authorises sentences of up to three years for publishing information that is 'aggressive or frightening'. Section 31, on the other hand, imposes sentences of up to 10 years for posting information that 'ruins communal harmony, or creates instability, or disorder, or disturbs, or is about to disturb, the law and order situation.'

During the election campaign in 2018, at least seventeen people died due to political unrest. Ahead of the election, Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission required all telecommunications officials to shut down 3G and 4G services, in Bangladesh.

Brad Adams, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch said: “The pre-election period was characterised by violence and intimidation against the opposition, their campaign events, and the misuse of laws to limit free speech. Reports of ballot stuffing, intimidation of voters, and ruling party control of voting locations on election day mean that an independent and impartial commission should be formed to determine the extent of the violations.”

Among the eminent Bangladeshis, who had been victimised on government orders, is the eminent photographer Shahidul Islam, who was jailed for months after being arrested in August, for doing a story illustrating police violence against student protesters in a Facebook post and for doing an interview with Doha based media agency, Al Jazeera. There had been a huge furor in the global media, at that point in time.

During the same pre-election period in September 2018, Dhaka-based Odhikar group highlighted a worrying spate of enforced and illegal disappearances of opposition leaders, students and activists. The group claims that 30 people were allegedly abducted by law enforcement agencies without explanation — a sharp jump from a total of 28 in the first eight months of the year.

Of those who went missing in September, the group says 26 were confirmed to have been arrested. Odhikar group even said that three were found dead, and one remained missing. Thousands have also been convicted for government’s attempt to crack on ‘war on drugs’.

Earlier, in February 2015, a Bangladeshi-American blogger Avijit Roy was lynched to death, on the streets of Dhaka. His wife was critically injured in the same attack. Other related mob incident happened in Sylhet in 2015, where another secular blogger, Ananta Bijoy Das, was murdered. None of their killers have been arrested or tried yet.

Now, after the post-poll results in 2018, opposition parties, journalists, and voters have alleged serious disparities including ballot stuffing, restricting access to voters at polling stations. There have been instances where the ruling Awami League activists occupied polling places and the police behaved in a partisan manner, as there were violations of voter privacy due to blatant intimidation.

The party in opposition, Bangladesh National Party (BNP) have accused that the polling agents were denied access in 221 constituencies, reflecting that vote robbery has been unprecedented. However, contrarily, Chief Election Commissioner Nurul Huda characterised these reports of violations on polling day as ‘stray incidents.’ On the other hand, Police chief Javed Patwari described the atmosphere as ‘peaceful’, which is quite strange.

In a country such as Bangladesh, ravaged by floods and cyclones lately, there are media regulatory bodies such as Editors' Council and Press Institute and Press Council, reflecting the times of their country. The activities in their offices have been mainly restricted because it is alleged that they were mainly threatened by the intelligence agencies or the police.

Now, it seems, that Sheikh Hasina’s every sincere achievement in ten years, would be overshadowed by her authoritarian attempts to make her party interests prioritised above all – even above the people she represented all these years. Sometime before, she had been accused of misusing the judiciary and the police.

Mrs Hasina, who is 71, is rooted in her country’s political culture. Her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was Bangladesh's first president. She was abroad when he was assassinated. It was only in 1975 when she returned in 1981 to take over the leadership of the Awami League. Her party and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by another powerful woman, Khalida Zia locked horns in the last election, in 2014, which the opposition party boycotted to protest changes to electoral procedures. This scenario gave Mrs Hasina an uncontested new term. When Mrs Zia was recently convicted for corruption for seventeen years, Mrs Hasina backed herself for another term. It reflects that her undisputed wins have turned Bangladesh into a one-party ruling state, as incumbency favoured her. Historically, both these women have been called as ‘Battling Begums’, after both disassociated themselves in 1990, by ousting former military dictator, Hussain Muhammad Ershad. In 2007, both of these leaders were imprisoned, after a military coup. But, the charges were later dropped, and they were allowed to contest the 2008 election.

Bangladeshis, in this election, had to decide whether to penalise the ruling party’s over alleged human rights violations, or reward it for the steps it took to grow the economy. According to them, they had to choose a leader with lesser evils. For Sheikh Hasina, providing food, jobs and health means providing human rights, and she desists her criticism because she believes that it is blown out of proportions. Mrs Hasina believes that although Bangladesh’s urban elite have been at the forefront in criticising her policies, she wants to represent every section of the society.

“They are trying to please their donors and are exaggerating, to get more funding,” she said to The New York Times.

But BNP, the main opposition, believe that Hasina’s public policies and perceptions are evasive, as around ten thousand of their party workers have been arrested, including ten of its candidates. In August 2018, thousands of students, marched the streets of Dhaka, to protest against the government for poor road safety, after a bus killed two children in a tragic accident.

For many Bangladeshis, economic growth should not be sacrificed for political ideals, and village politics should also take a priority, similar to the politics reflected in the urban centres. And above all, they believe in a grassroots movement, vibrant civil society and freedom of speech, despite Hasina’s attempts of self serving populism, in recent years. Does it also mean that she has not done much, to strengthen democratic institutions?

Human Rights Watch has also alleged that the government has also failed to properly enforce women safety laws, in cases of sexual violence, rape, domestic abuse, acid attacks, among others. Despite government committing to end child marriage by 2041, a law has remained on the legal books, which allow girls to marry before the age of 18 under “special” circumstances.

Coming back to the recent election, Hong Kong-based rights activist Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman, working for the Asian Legal Resource Centre, said: the media "blackout" during the election was "immeasurable and irreparable."


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