Sunday, March 17, 2019

State agencies release Maroof Zamen from secret detention

On the evening of December 4, 2017, Maroof Zaman, a former Bangladeshi ambassador to Qatar and Vietnam, (as well as previously Counsellor of the Bangladesh High Commission in UK and an additional secretary of the foreign ministry) was picked up by state security agencies as he was driving alone to the airport to pick up his daughter Samiha Zaman. 

Later that day, at around 7.45pm, Zaman called his home telephone landline from an unidentified number and informed the domestic help that some people would come by the house to retrieve his computer, and instructed them to cooperate. About 20 minutes later, three tall, well-dressed men came to the house and took possession of his laptop, home computer, camera, and spare smartphone. They wore caps and surgical masks to conceal their faces from the building’s CCTV cameras.

This is the account of the family immediately after the incident. His illegal custody by state agencies was confirmed to me by a senior government officer. This person said that Zaman was "not innocent" and had been detained due to his links to an "anti-government website". In Bangladesh this is now considered sufficient to justify an act outside the law, akin to abduction and kidnapping.

For 15 months, he was held in secret detention - never brought before a magistrate. He was mostly likely held by the government military intelligence agency, Directorate General of Forces Intelligence. The state never formally acknowledged that they had him in their custody.

Yesterday on Friday March 15, 2019, state agencies released him. One of his daughters posted this on Facebook:
After 15 and a half months, or 467 days... my father is back. My sister and I are both profoundly grateful to those individuals who have supported us throughout this period. We would now like to request privacy so that we can process and heal. We have no further comments or details to share at this time.
As I explained here, it is highly unlikely we will hear from Zaman an on the record account of what has happened to him. When a secretly person is released, the agencies first threaten the person in such a way that they dare not reveal story about their detention. 

The Bangladesh government use many strategies of restricting dissent and asserting control, but one of them is through illegal picks ups and secret detentions, which has certainly created a sense of fear and panic amongst those on the wrong side of the political divide. People are aware that anyone can be picked up, disappeared and there is practically nothing that can be done. Experience shows that the courts are unwilling and unable to assert any supervision of the executive in relation to secret detentions which have become an increasingly regular 

In 2009, the first year of Awami League rule, there were 3 reported example of disappearances; in 2017, this had increased to 90. These numbers only count those cases reported in the media - there are many dozens of others without the family reporting the incident.

Let us hope that Maroof Zaman's release marks the end of this practice and the release of all those who currently remain in secret detention. 

Friday, March 1, 2019

Al Jazeera's Mehdi Hasan takes on Bangladesh's Gowher Rizvi

This is going to make interesting and engrossing television.

The suave Gowher Rizvi, the Bangladesh Prime Minister's international affairs advisor, taking on the fierce interviewing style of Al Jazeera's Mehdi Hasan. 

The programme is being aired tomorrow on Friday, 1 March and for those interested in Bangladesh is "must watch" television. I was in the audience at the live broadcast, and Rizvi at what point looked like a boxer on the ropes. Though there probably is no one more capable than Rizvi of defending the Bangladesh government's human rights and governance record, the record of the Government on these issues is so parlous that even his skills are insufficient. 

Below is the press release that Al Jazeera's Head to Head programme has distributed to promote the episode which states that the programme will be on online here

Al Jazeera English ‘Head to Head’ interview with Gowher Rizvi, International Affairs Advisor to the Bangladesh Prime Minister
 On Sheikh Hasina’s recent landslide election victory, Dr Rizvi asserts that Bangladesh “is not a one-party state” and that “free and fair elections” took place.
 Regarding the arrest of renowned photojournalist, Shahidul Alam, Dr Rizvi said he was “arrested for spreading disinformation which was inciting violence” but admits that he “cannot deny” that he was beaten by the police because he does “not know what happened.”
 Responding to the accusation of government-enforced disappearances, Dr Rizvi maintains that the “government does not need to disappear people” as it has the “authority to arrest people,” adding that the government “will investigate” if it has occurred.
 When asked whether Aung San Suu Kyi should face an international court for her role in the Rohingya refugee crisis, Dr Rizvi asserts that “the entire government or any member of government” who “aided and abetted” the process, should face trial though refused to name Ms Suu Kyi directly.
(London, 28th February 2019) – Sheikh Hasina’s international affairs advisor, Gowher Rizvi, told Al Jazeera English’s Mehdi Hasan that Bangladesh “is not a one-party state” despite its recent landslide victory, where its ruling coalition secured 96% of parliamentary seats.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina won her fourth term in office, in an election Dr Rizvi maintained: “there was 39 political parties contested in the election. Free and fair elections took place,” adding “Give me one good reason why the opposition should have been voted into power? They did not have a manifesto, they were ambivalent, whether they were going to an election or not.”
Bangladesh’s opposition rejected the election results, after only securing 7 seats in December’s poll. With regards to the government accusing the opposition of crimes which in some instances they could not have committed as the individuals named were in fact dead, Rizvi admitted that “it is embarrassing” but added that “when such charges are made it is embarrassing, but one knows that in police investigation, in many societies, especially in developing countries, often have these shortcomings.”
Human rights groups have criticised Bangladesh of attempting to suppress the media and silence its critics through controversial laws such as the Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT) and the new Digital Security Act.
An award-winning photojournalist, Shahidul Alam, was arrested in August 2018 following student protests where he gave a number of media interviews including on Al Jazeera English.
Speaking about Mr Alam, Dr Rizvi described him as a “very close friend” but stated that he “was not arrested for appearing on Al Jazeera and making a comment. He was arrested for spreading disinformation which was inciting violence.” Dr Rizvi added that when the journalist was arrested he ensured that he “was given medical treatment”, which prompted the presenter, Mehdi Hasan to ask “why did he need medical treatment?”
Rizvi said “I cannot deny it [that Alam was beaten by police] because I do not know what happened.”
Previously Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had described Shahidul Alam as “mentally sick”.
Gowher Rizvi disagreed with this and said he has “no idea” why she said this. “I don’t know what she had in her mind,” he said.
There have also been allegations against law enforcement authorities of abducting and detaining hundreds of opposition activists.
When asked about the issue of ‘enforced disappearances’, Dr Rizvi responded: “I fear you are mistaken. Government does not need to disappear people. Government have authority to arrest people if they feel somebody has done something wrong.”
However, he did accept it is “deplorable” if it is taking place and that the government “will investigate”.
Mehdi Hasan also discussed the issue of the Rohingya refugees, who have been fleeing neighbouring Myanmar, with more than 1 million residing in Bangladesh. Asked why Bangladesh wanted to send Rohingyas back to Myanmar, when Dr Rizvi has described the situation as “ethnic cleansing”, he said that they “will only send them when the conditions are safe.”
Presenter Mehdi Hasan referred to “terror and panic” in a refugee camp in November when refugees feared being repatriated against their will.
Dr Rizvi argued that there was “never, ever a question of any forcible repatriation.” Asked if Aung San Suu Kyi should face an international tribunal for “her role in denying and covering it up”, Dr Rizvi said that “whoever is involved should be faced with the International Court of Justice.”
A case would be “against the entire government or any member of government that aided and abetted in this process,” he added. Hasan is joined by a panel of three experts: journalist and author Tasneem Khalil, Bangladesh’s High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland, Saida Muna Tasneem and Abbas Faiz, a human rights lecturer at Essex University.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Resignation letter of Abdur Razzaq from Jamaat

Abdur Razzaq, until Friday an assistant general secretary of the Jamaat-e-Islami resigned from the party in a bold and surprising move. My article for Al Jazeera on this can be read here

Razzaq made public the resignation letter he sent to the leader of the Jamaat, and I am posting it here, as it is a very interesting document.

15 February 2019

Mr Maqbul Ahmed
Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami

Re: Letter of Resignation

My most respected brother, Maqbul Ahmed,

Assalamu Alaikum Warahmatullah.

1. It is with great regret I tender my resignation from Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami
with immediate effect. 
2. This has been a difficult decision for me. Ever since joining Jamaat in 1986, I have worked towards implementing the party’s objectives. Over the last three decades, I have tried my best to fulfil the duties entrusted to me. As Chief Defence Counsel I have defended the top Jamaat leaders to the best of my ability and with utmost honesty and integrity. I have always believed that by serving Jamaat, I would not only be able to discharge my Islamic obligations but also serve my country. 
3. Despite its many positive contributions to Bangladesh society such as corruption free politics, intra party democracy, institution building, and creating a vast number of honest, competent and dedicated citizens, Jamaat in the 21st century has not been successful in becoming an effective vehicle for realising its goal of social justice based on Islamic values. It cannot be denied that Jamaat wholeheartedly embraced the independence of Bangladesh, and never took part in any activity - directly or indirectly,
covertly or overtly - which is subversive of the state or detrimental to the interest and sovereignty of Bangladesh. Moreover, Jamaat was part of the struggle for the restoration of democracy in the democratic movements in the sixties by participating in Combined Opposition Parties (COP), Pakistan Democratic Movements (PDM) and Democratic Action Committee (DAC). In the eighties, Jamaat was on the street side by side with the 8-party, 7-party and 5-party alliances against the dictatorial regime. But all these remarkable contributions failed to receive due recognition because of Jamaat’s role in opposing the historic struggle for liberation in 1971. 1971 casts a deep dark shadow over all its achievements and contributions. 
4. For these reasons, I have always believed and continue to believe that an apology by Jamaat to the nation is not only a moral imperative but also necessary to absolve its
post 1971 generation of the stigma. On a number of occasions, I have stressed that Islam and the liberation struggle define and shape Bangladesh politics, culture and society. They are non-negotiable. Yet, in 1971, our predecessors opposed the independence of Bangladesh and failed to publicly protest against the atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army. In the 47 years since independence, successive party leaderships have failed to apologise for the party’s role in 1971 or even to explain the party’s position on the struggle for independence. Now, more than ever, Jamaat needs to clarify its 1971 stance. 
5. Over the last two decades I have been trying relentlessly to persuade Jamaat to have a frank discussion of the events of 1971, Jamaat’s role in those events and why it decided to support Pakistan and apologise for that decision. Specifically, I raised the issue on the following occasions:
(a) In October 2001, when Jamaat’s Ameer and Secretary General were appointed Cabinet ministers, I strongly advised Jamaat to address the issue of 1971 before the Victory Day celebrations of 2001. A committee was formed, a draft was prepared but nothing further was done. 
(b) In 2005, I argued very vigorously for addressing the issue before the working committee; the result was an outright rejection. 
(c) In 2007-2008, during the Emergency period, when allegations against Jamaat took a new dimension, I tried my best to convince Jamaat to address the issue. 
(d) In the summer of 2011, in the last open session of the Majlish-e-Shoora, I raised the 1971 issue with a special appeal to the young members of the Shoora to come forward and give leadership, only to be rebuffed by a section of the top leadership.
(e) On 19th March 2016, in a 19 page letter to you, I advised Jamaat to address the issue and to make a fresh start in view of the changed circumstances in the world, particularly the Muslim world. 
(f) In November 2016, shortly after your election as Ameer, my opinion was sought and I drafted a letter of apology. It was not implemented. 
(g) And finally in January 2019, I advised the leadership of the necessity of taking responsibility for its predecessors’ role in 1971. In the absence of any better or viable alternative, I also advised to dissolve Jamaat.
6. But all my efforts have been unsuccessful. My decades of advice had fallen on deaf ears. 
7. Jamaat’s failure to address the 1971 issue and apologise has resulted in a stigma being attached to those who were not involved in the decision. Even those born after 1971 and the many unborn generations who may be associated with Jamaat in future will have to bear this heavy burden. This continuing failure of Jamaat has given further ground for it to be seen as an anti-independence party. The result is dissociation from the people, politics and the country. 
8. Time has come for young Bangladeshi Muslim democrats to revisit the old concept of the Islamic State expounded by our predecessors. This is more so because of
recent developments in a number of the Muslim majority countries which point to the success of centrist parties with Islamic reference. The new generation should come up
with new models in light of the new realities of the post Cold War era, the emerging multi-polar world and the recent upheavals in the Muslim world. 
9. Unfortunately, Jamaat has failed to rise to the challenge of representing the young Bangladeshi citizens who are seeking good governance and a principled opposition to
10. After joining Jamaat, one of my objectives was to reform it from within. And I have been continuously striving to achieve that for the last 30 years. I was for structural reform, and full and effective participation of women. I made my points verbally and in writing. My reformist views are well known within the party. In my letter to you in March 2016, I emphasised the reform agenda by giving it the highest importance. I cited the successful reform models in certain Muslim majority countries. And finally, I appealed to bring fundamental changes to Jamaat’s objects, plans and programs in view of the change in world politics, and particularly, the upheavals in Muslim countries. As usual, there was no response. 
11. The young generation of Bangladeshis are educated and enlightened; they are well-read and aware of the recent national and international developments; and above all,
they are patriots capable of playing an active role in changing the face of Bangladesh. Their potential may best be utilised through a democratic principled party adhering to Islamic values operating within the secular constitution of Bangladesh. The failure of Jamaat leadership to restructure the party has sadly convinced me that Jamaat will not be able to fulfil this role. 
12. On a number of occasions in the past, I had considered resigning but decided not to, and continued my efforts for internal reform, hoping to persuade Jamaat to have an
open discussion of its role in 1971 and offer an apology. However, the latest refusal of Jamaat has convinced me otherwise. I have been proven wrong. From now on, I wish to concentrate on my profession and hope to have the opportunity of contributing towards a prosperous Bangladesh. 
13. I must put on record my sincere appreciation of the current Jamaat leadership. At great personal cost and unprecedented sufferings they have kept the party together
through turbulent times. I have no doubt as to their dedication to the party and the sincerity of their actions. 
With warm regards 
Yours sincerely, 

Abdur Razzaq
Barking, Essex
United Kingdom

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

How safe is the current Awami League government?

Why hold a free and fair election which you risk losing, when you can rig it to ensure certain victory, and get away with it?

This was clearly in the mind of the Awami League in Bangladesh which three weeks ago won 293 of the 300 parliamentary seats in what must be the country’s most rigged national elections as the party won its third consecutive term in power. This weekend, Sheikh Hasina organised a victory rally in Dhaka where she told her supporters, "Please remember, retaining victory is harder than earning it.”

In the fifteen years between 1996 and 2009, Bangladesh’s three national elections, though violent, were relatively fair, resulting each time in a change in government. This had nothing to do with the just disposition of the country’s politicians but because three months before each election a neutral caretaker government took over power and ensured a level playing field.

In 2011, however, through a constitutional amendment, the Awami League government, newly in power, ditched the arrangement (which, ironically back in 1996 it had originally campaigned for), claiming that political governments like its own could now hold free and fair elections. The Awami League’s decision was widely unpopular at the time and the opposition boycotted the 2014 election, fearing voter manipulation - however, as a result the Awami League returned to power uncontested, with the party’s contention that it could hold free and fair elections remaining untested.

However, with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party deciding this time to take part in the December polls as part of a National United Front with a number of smaller parties, we found out the answer.

This was not just ordinary rigging – it was systemic and systematic involving corruption at every level of the state including the election commission, presiding poll officers, the police and the army.

The Awami League had started the rigging weeks before the election with widespread arbitrary arrests of activists from the opposition parties and steps taken to stop their campaigning. The control of the ruling party was so absolute that the capital city of Dhaka looked like it was hosting an Awami League festival as opposition posters, banners and festoons were effectively banned.

In Bangladesh, though, elections are won through the control of polling centres and this is what the Awami League did on the day of the vote using the police, army and ruling party activists. As leaked documents showed, “core Awami League” presiding officers were put in polling centres, and “strict policing” was organised to ensure “slow casting” of votes. This stopped opposition supporters from voting and allowed the wide spread stuffing of ballot boxes (which also reportedly took place the night before the vote).

One might think you can get an indication of the extent of ballot stuffing by comparing the average 80% voting levels found in the 294 constituencies which used paper ballots (where stuffing was possible) with the average 50% voting levels in the six constituencies which used voting machines (where stuffing was not an option.) This suggests that there was on average at least 30 percent of votes which were the result of stuffing (or just made up).

However, one can't in any way depend on the voting machine levels to be accurate - since the Election Commission gave assistant presiding officers an extraordinary power, the ability to use their own finger prints to vote on behalf of 25 percent of voters in their polling station.

The voting levels of opposition candidates in some polling centres were so small - for example in the constituency of Barisal-1 where the opposition candidate received 0 votes in 26 centres, 1 vote in 9 centres and less than 10 votes in 40 centres - that one can only assume that opposition ballots must either have been removed from the boxes, or were simply not counted.

All of this polling booth rigging could only occur because the opposition polling agents were prevented from being present at polling stations during the vote and the count, as is required by electoral law.

In most countries, the government would not get away with this. But the Awami League has been in power now for ten years and in that period has decimated the opposition though arrests, extra-judicial killings and disappearances, put in place partisan Awami Leaguers to run just about every state, law enforcement and judicial institution, and have a hugely restricted the independent media.

As a result, those who would want to protest the rigging do so at great peril. Just about the only independent organization who has risked publishing a report on the election, was immediately threatened with a government investigation.

However, state repression does not fully explain the lack of protests of ordinary people.

Whilst most people in Bangladesh are well aware of the rigging, they have little positive incentive to put themselves in any kind of jeopardy on behalf of the principle opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Whilst the Awami League has a clear political narrative linked to its role in the 1971 war of independence, and the idea of implementing the “spirit of liberation”, the BNP has no winning alternative narrative or policy programme. Moreover, it remains linked to the country’s main islamist political party (the Jamaat-e-Islami), was widely corrupt when it was last in power between 2001 and 2006, and has a history of involvement in violent protests.

Whilst the BNP does of course have its loyal supporters, the main reason why many people vote for the party is due to their dislike of the Awami League – not for anything positive that the BNP could offer. And whilst this might have been enough for it to have won a free and fair election now (though polls, which many disbelieve, suggested otherwise), it is certainly not enough to bring people out on the streets in its support.

The lack of any positive alternative helps explain why the United States and Western countries, which have criticised the elections, are unlikely to take much action against the Awami League government. And with Indian and Chinese support for the new Bangladesh government, Western pressure is far less relevant than it has ever been before.

There is therefore no immediate threat to Sheikh Hasina’s premiership – though the rigged elections does create a certain brittleness to her party’s control in the country.

Hasina’s main claim to legitimacy is a booming economy with between 6 to 7 percent growth, but she will not only have to maintain this in the future but also create millions of jobs for the over two million young people who come onto the job market each year. This will not be easy in an economy with decreasing private investment and an education system where most students finish without employable skills. If the economy does not create tens of thousands of new jobs, it could find itself with serious problems.

The banking sector is also in real jeopardy. Awami League’s business cronies have been allowed to take over private banks and take out huge loans that they will never pay back. Officially over 10 percent of all banking loans in the private and state sector are said to be non-performing, though the actual figure is thought to be closer to 20 percent as corrupt banks allow defaulters to reschedule their loans. It is perhaps a matter of time before one or more of the banks collapses - and this could cause significant public disruption.

So even though it certainly appears that the new Awami League government is unassailable, the government will remain fearful that discontent could trigger wide public protests. That is why we will see the government continuing to take action to dismantle the two main opposition parties the BNP the Jamaat-e-islami and come down heavily on media criticism.

So whilst Bangladesh moves further towards an authoritarianism, which strips away any pretence of independent judicial or state institutions, the Awami League government is under no threat, and the streets are peaceful. However, with anti-Awami League sentiment remaining strong, the lack of any electoral legitimacy does makes it vulnerable in future crises. Yet, the government is likely to remain safe until the opposition to the Awami League can turn itself into a positive alternative which people can believe in and are willing to fight for.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

3 youngsters accused of committing war crimes

Yesterday, Al Jazeera published my story on the recent arrest of a US citizen of Bangladeshi descent for allegedly committing international crimes including murder, rape and arson in the country's independence war even though he was 13 years of age in 1971 (he was born on January 3, 1958) when the offences were said to have been committed. 

You can read the article here

In the prosecutor's application for the arrest of Jubair (and 10 other people) it is stated that he was 62 years of age, suggesting that he would have been 14 - rather than 13 - in 1971. Whilst this was inaccurate - since all other documentation shows that he was born on January 13, 1958 - this may have just been a rounding-up error, since whilst he was 61 at the time of his arrest, he turned 62 two weeks late on January 3, 2019.

However, Jubair is not the only very young person whom the Tribunal allege to have committed offences - including, supposedly, the offence of rape!

In the same application seeking warrants of arrest, the prosecutors name two other men who would also have been (using the information given in the documentation) respectively, 12 and 13 years of age at the time the offences were committed.

The application says:

-  Siddique Rahman is aged 61 - which would have made him 13 in 1971

- Totun Master is aged 60 - which would have made him 12 in 1971

Rahman is now in jail, but Master was not arrested and is in hiding.

The fact that the ICT is now arresting people who were so young is in 1971 is all pretty extraordinary - and yet again raises questions about the integrity of the International Crimes Tribunal. 

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Egregious rigging in Barisal uncovered

If any more proof were needed of the government's rigging of the election, you can find it if you dig down into the constituency results at a polling station level.

The Daily Star has done this in the district of Barisal - with the most egregious constituency being the constituency of Barisal-1 which had a total of 115 polling centres/stations.

The BNP candidate Jahiruddin Swapan received:

- 0 votes in 26 stations

- 1 vote in 9 station

- less than 10 votes in 40 stations.

The BNP candidate received a total of 1,305 votes

The AL candidate, Abul Hasnat Abdullah, received 211,507 votes. 

In seven polling stations the AL candidate received every single vote - not a single vote from any of the other candidates (there was a third party, the Islami Andolan Bangladesh)

The AL candidate, Hasnat, received 98.7% of the vote.

These two candidates have faced each other before, 17 years earlier.

In the 2001 polls, Swapan (BNP) beat Hasnat (AL) by around 14,000 votes. BNP got 81,791 votes while the AL obtained 67,760 votes.

This must constitute one of the biggest swings from one party to another in the history of 'democratic' elections.

In the 2008 elections, there was also a close contest between the AL and BNP - with different candidates. The AL candidate received 98,245 votes and the BNP secured 70,969 votes.

You will notice how carefully The Daily Star has written this article. 

For example, rather than having a headline which could reasonably read, "Polling station data suggest rigging in Barisal" it reads, "Voting Pattern in Barishal Dist: From well-contested to lopsided". 

This is what is known as media self-censorship

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Government election narrative shredded by US, UK, EU

The UK, EU and USA have all now issued statements concerning the Bangladesh elections which will concern the government as they accept that vote rigging took place and cutt across the government narrative that these were free and fair elections. Each statement calls for the complaints to be examined. 

Opposition politicians and activists may have expected more - some even hoping (highly unrealistically) that the US or the EU would not recognise the new Bangladesh government - but arguably these comments are as critical as these countries could make in relation to a friendly ally, whose assistance they need in the fight against islamic militancy, and support for the Rohingyas. (It is important to appreciate that Governments tend to recognise states, not governments.)

The European Union stated:
The mobilisation of voters and the participation of the opposition in the elections for the first time in 10 years reflect the aspirations of the people of Bangladesh to democracy. However, violence has marred the election day, and significant obstacles to a level playing field remained in place throughout the process and have tainted the electoral campaign and the vote.
The relevant national authorities should now ensure a proper examination of allegations of irregularities and commit to full transparency in their resolution.
The European Union expects the country to move forward towards democracy, respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms. We will continue to support the work in this context, in the interest of the people of Bangladesh. (emphasis added)
The UK government stated:
While I welcome the participation of all opposition parties in these elections, I am aware of credible accounts of obstacles, including arrests, that constrained or prevented campaigning by opposition parties, and of irregularities in the conduct of elections on polling day that prevented some people from voting. I urge a full, credible and transparent resolution of all complaints related to the conduct of the elections.
I deplore the acts of intimidation and unlawful violence that have taken place during the campaign period, and am deeply concerned by the incidents that led to so many deaths on polling day. My thoughts are with the families and friends of those who have lost loved ones.
Free, fair, peaceful, and participatory elections are essential to any functioning democracy. It is vital for the government and all political parties to now work together to address differences and find a way forward in line with the interests of the people of Bangladesh.
We have a broad and important partnership with Bangladesh, and a significant Bangladeshi diaspora in the UK. We will continue to support the people of Bangladesh in their aspirations for a more stable, prosperous, and democratic future. 
(emphasis added)

The US government stated:
The United States commends the tens of millions of Bangladeshis who voted in Bangladesh’s 11th parliamentary election on December 30, 2018, as well as the decision of all major opposition political parties to participate, a positive development after the boycotted election of 2014.
The United States remains deeply invested in the future of Bangladesh and its democratic development. The United States is Bangladesh’s largest foreign investor, largest single-country market for Bangladeshi exports, and home to a large community of Americans of Bangladeshi origin.
In this light, we note with concern credible reports of harassment, intimidation, and violence in the pre-election period that made it difficult for many opposition candidates and their supporters to meet, hold rallies, and campaign freely. We are also concerned that election-day irregularities prevented some people from voting, which undermined faith in the electoral process.
We strongly encourage all parties to refrain from violence and request the Election Commission work constructively with all sides to address claims of irregularities. Bangladesh’s impressive record of economic development and respect for democracy and human rights are mutually reinforcing, and we look forward to continue working with the ruling government and opposition towards advancing these interrelated goals. 
(emphasis added)
The challenge for the opposition is now to systematically collect detailed evidence to prove that rigging took place on the scale that they allege - constituency by constituency, polling statement by polling station, polling agent by polling agent, at a level of detail and accuracy that will prove its case not only to the Election Commission and the country's judicial authorities (which will no doubt reject it) but more significantly to the international community. 

This is a major piece of work, requiring a lot of man power but something that should be done. The opposition must also ensure that they do not exaggerate their case, and ensure that their allegations are based on clear evidence.

When satire becomes reality in Bangladesh

There is now no satire in Bangladesh. Only reality. Or is that what we thought could only be satire is now reality.

Six months ago, Sheikh Hasina's son, Sajeeb Wazed Joy, wrote a couple of outrageous fact-free articles arguing that the police had investigated every single allegation of an enforced disappearances in Bangladesh and found them all not to be genuine! In fact, he argued that all allegations of disappearances were "fictitious attempts by accused criminals to avoid prosecution and accountability." Yes, really. He said that!

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The Economist and the "Exit Costs" of losing power

The Economist has an uncanny ability of distilling a country's complex politics into 500 words - and yesterday's article on the election is pretty sharp. It states:

"The Awami League, which has has been in power continuously for ten years, flagrantly wielded the full power of state institutions, from police to courts to the Election Commission, to promote its chances. Sheikh Hasina’s party also resorted to virtually every electoral trick in the bag." (For those who cannot access the website, the whole article is set out at the end of this post. )

Election rigging - the international community response?

So far political leaders from China, India and Bhutan have congratulated Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League government for "winning" the election - without any of them mentioning the widespread allegations of election rigging before and after the Sunday poll.

India is Awami League's closest ally, and so its unconditional support for the government after the election is far from suprising. China is not interested in the fairness or otherwise of elections. And Bhutan is too small to matter.

Western liberal democracies have not yet given their views on the Bangladesh election - and what they have to say, in particular the will both be both fascinating and significant. 

Monday, December 31, 2018

After the "election". What next?

Perhaps the biggest surprise of polling day was how much the Awami League government felt they had to rig the election on the day itself - since they had taken pretty extravagant steps to ensure victory before the vote itself. But clearly, the Awami League did not want to take anything for granted and used the police and their own activists to stop BNP supporters from voting, preventing opposition polling agents from entering polling centres, and stuffing ballots. 

There are enough eye-witnesses and reports to suggest that this was a widespread and systematic in most parts of the country. The plan set out in the documents leaked yesterday by BangladeshPolitico seemed to have been followed pretty assiduously.

The Bangladesh opposition should perhaps counts itself lucky that the Awami League government allowed it to win 7 seats!

Perhaps, the only institution whose credibility is more questionable than those involved in holding the elections is the small international observer mission which has played a home run for the government in bestowing legitimacy on the election. They clearly had no idea what was actually going on in the real world of Bangladesh's polling stations. (The EU, US government and Commonwealth did not send, or were not permitted to send, any observers) 

The Bangladesh government will now get its ducks in a row - and we will hear similar utterances about the credibility of the elections from the local partisan election observers (who were permitted to monitor the elections by the Election Commission), from the Indian government, and other political allies inside and outside the country.

The opposition has, understandably, rejected the election and has demanded a new one. It is, however, almost impossible to see how this could happen (at least in the short term) unless there was some kind of large-scale people's movement - which is itself highly improbable (opposition activists are now in hiding to escape arrest and are in no position to lead any street movement) and, were it to happen, would be ruthlessly repressed.

So where does that leave the government. There is no doubt the government will survive - as it does have a significant support base - but its widespread and systematic election/vote rigging has arguably created a far greater crisis of legitimacy than it faced even after the uncontested 2014 election. 

The reason why the last elections were uncontested was because the opposition parties did not trust the Awami League government, whilst it held the levers of power, to hold a free and fair election. The opposition demanded that the election be run under the control of a neutral care-taker election-time government under which all elections since 1996 had been held.

The AL government, however, argued that a special election time government was not necessary as it was quite capable of holding free and fair elections. The opposition refused to accept this and so boycotted the election. As a result over 150 parliamentary seats were uncontested, and the remaining ones were uncompetitive.

One of the reasons why the political opposition  did not take part in these 2014 elections was to avoid providing legitimacy to a rigged process which they would have lost - at the time the BNP was ahead in the opinion polls. The BNP thought that if it did not take part, it could more easily attack the government for being illegitimate. 

To some extent the opposition was right. For some time after the 'elections', the government did have a significant legitimacy problem - however as time went on, the Awami League government managed to win over the international community, and was successful at repressing the domestic opposition. In addition, the government put forward the cogent argument that it could not be described as 'illegitimate' when it was opposition which refused to take part in the elections.

This time round, the opposition agreed take part in the election, despite significant reservations. In effect, it agreed to test out the government's notion that it would hold free and fair elections even though it was in power. 

And the government flunked this test, resoundingly. 

The government cannot now criticise the opposition for not taking part - and instead can only argue that the elections were free and fair. There will be a battle between two narratives - and of course with the government in almost total control of the TV news media, and partial control of the print media - it will trumpet these arguments hard.

However, arguably, the government has gone too far in its rigging to make its arguments convincing. Apart from everything else, the very fact that the opposition won only seven seats will itself be seen as evidence of rigging.

The Awami League government has dug a huge hole for itself from which it will emerge only with difficultly. The drip drip arguments about the lack of legitimacy in Bangladesh will take its toll, and whilst, the future of the country is not easy to predict, it may well lead in due course to more concerted demands, particularly from young people, for new free and fair elections that will be hard for the government to deny.

Other "2018 Elections" articles

Election rigging - the polling agents debacle

On the eve of the election, this blog reported on the the arrest of seven polling agents from one constituency, raising the possibility that preventing polling agents from entering polling stations could become a more systematic strategy of the Awami League government on the subsequent day.

And this is exactly what has happened. The BNP claim that they had reports of polling agents being refused access in 221 constituencies.

Having polling agents within polling stations is crucial to prevent all kinds of shenanigans happen within the centres including stuffing of ballot boxes, and improper counting of votes - which is of course why the Awami League focused their efforts in stopping opposition polling agents from entering centres.

The Dhaka Tribune had a good story on this. It stated that:
The Dhaka Tribune independently observed nearly 200 polling centres across the capital on Sunday, and hardly found any polling agents of the BNP and Oikya Front.
The paper also reported on pro-Awami league people pretending to be opposition polling agents. The article is worth reading in full

The widely respected Zonayed Saki, chief coordinator of a small left wing party, the Ganosamhati Andolon, boycotted the elections in the three constituencies - one in Dhaka, Pabna and Chittagong - in which he and two other party candidates were contesting. According to him, their "poling agents were kicked out of polling stations and assaulted in almost every centre of Dhaka-12 constituency as well as in Chattogram and Pabna".

It appears that many formal complaints have been made about this to the Election Commission (which will no doubt ignore them). The lawyer, Assaduzzaman, who was standing in Jhenaidah sent this complaint which not only deals with the polling agent issue but other conscerns about stuffing of ballot boxes and voter intimidation.
Returning officer and Deputy Commissioner
Sub. Prayer for Cancellation of Election due to massive vote rigging in the Constituency No.81- Jhenaidah-1 (Shailkupa) 
Dear Sir,
With a heavy heart and deepest Concern, I would like to Lodge this Complain to you and pray for cancellation of the election due to massive vote rigging on 30, December, 2018 in the Constituency No.81- Jhenaidah-1 (Shailkupa) in which I happened to be a candidate having been nominated by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The basis of my complain and prayer are comprehensively stated in the following manner: 
1. On 30, December, 2018 all my Polling Agents in 117 polling centers appeared before the respective presiding officers to submit their identification card duly authorized and issued by me. In some of the centers, they could submit it but in many centers they could not submit it under duress by the cadres of the Bangladesh Awami league candidate and that too happened in presence of the presiding officers and members of the assigned law enforcement agencies. It is to be noted that in this election the Presiding officers and Polling officers are commonly known in the locality as the member of Awami league oriented families

2. By 11 am of 30 December 2018, all my Polling Agents have been forced to go outside the polling centers under duress by the Awami league candidate’s agents and their fellow cadres encircled in the respective polling centers. That too happened in presence of the presiding officers and the member of the law enforcement agencies assigned therein who were either kept silent or had abetted their activities. The Awami league candidate’s cadres had stamped on the ballot papers in the open day light after ousting our Agents which have been seen by many people. Even some persons who died before 30 December have been seen to have casted their votes . These were the scenario of all the polling stations. 
3. Immediately, I informed some of the incidents to the Assistant Returning Officer, Shailkupa over telephone but of no result. BNP supporters including my polling agents from all the centres had informed me over telephone that Awami League Candidate’s cadres had been resisting the voters on their way to polling centers, specially those who they believed to have BNP orientation. Motiur Rahman Bishwas of Baroipara has been caused leg broken injury and Md. Motiur Rahman Motin of Shailkupa Pourashova area has been caused grievous hurt with serious bleeding injuries while they were on their way back to Polling centres. 
4. If any effective and fair due diligence is done, you will be posted with the facts that from 2 pm onwards of 29 December 2018, the Awamileague Candidate’s cadres had threatened from door to door of BNP supporters with dire consequences asking them not to go to polling centres and they have caused serious panic in the vicinity all over the Constituency and it continued the whole night. They also used abusive languages upon the female members of some of the BNP leaders and supporters. This horrific situation can never be said to be an atmosphere for holdin a free and fair election. 
5. You may recall from your record that as many as 52 major incidents had been reported to you in writing over the last two weeks which were duly received by your office but no action had ever been taken in reference to those. Had there been any action taken against the perpetrators of those incidents, I strongly believe that the goons could have been controlled effectively and the election rigging could be prevented. Your failure to do the needful has not only given them a Frankenstein, but has also established your helplessness to conduct a free and fair election under a political government. 
6. Please be noted that in the given facts and circumstances, this complaint could not be lodged before the respective presiding officers due to our no confidence upon them as their purported and biased inactions have fuelled the vote rigging. In addition to that , our Agents are apprehending that their life will be endanger if they go to submit it to the Presiding officers. Hence, making complain to the returning officers lacks effective and efficacious remedy. 
7. In the circumstances, had there been a free and fair election, not only me but also the people of my Constituency strongly believe that I would be elected in a landslide victory. But the Awamileague Candidate has snatched my victory upon rigging the votes in the aforesaid manners. 
Wherefore, it is most humbly prayed that your honor would graciously be pleased to cancel the 11 Parliament Election purportedly held on 30 December 2018 so far it relates to Constituency No. 81-Jhenidah-1(Shailkupa) and take other appropriate legal actions against the perpetrators and I will be highly obliged for that 
Thanking you 
yours sincerely,

Md. Asaduzzaman
Candidate,Nominated by BNP
Constituency No.81-Jhenaidha-1 (Shailkupa)

Sunday, December 30, 2018

"Polling agents arrested" and "ballots box stuffing"

The next roll of the rigging dice now seems to be the police arresting opposition polling agents and ballot box stuffing - though it remains unclear how extensive this is.

Polling agents should be able to play a crucial role in ensuring that some of the crasser attempts at vote rigging during the actual voting and the count do not take place. Removing opposition polling agents from the scene is a way to allow vote-stuffing and improper vote-counting - particularly when, as revealed by BangladeshPolitico, "Core AL Presiding Officers" have been allocated to certain polling stations.

Local BNP activists in the constituency of Thakurgoan-1, where the opposition leader Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir is contesting, have told BangladeshPolitico that at least seven of its polling agents, each attached to a separate polling centre, were arrested by the police on Saturday. As of writing, three of them remain detained, and the whereabouts of the other four are uncertain.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Exclusive: Documents suggest AL rigging

BangladeshPolitico has been sent a copy of a power point presentation that provides new information on what appears to be one part of the government's proposed strategy of rigging the vote. Read here more generally about pre-vote rigging.

The presentation is titled: "How to win 11th Bangladesh General Election 2018: Strictly for Bangladesh Awami League.BangladeshPolitico obtained a copy of the document from a source in Police Headquarters.

The information is contained in the final two slides of the presentation given to the Awami League government, probably before the formation of the National Unity Front, as it only refers to the BNP, and assumes an untroubled relationship with the Jatiya Party.

Rigging the election before votes are cast

Awami League allowed to campaign without threats or fear
Autocratic governments rig elections before any votes are cast - by restricting opposition candidates from standing, stopping the opposition activists from campaigning, and preventing opposition supporters from voting. 

All these we have seen in recent months in Bangladesh - through the government's control of the courts, the police and the election commission. These three bodies are no longer independent entities in Bangladesh, and have largely become part of the Awami League machine. The government would like to avoid having to stuff ballot boxes on the day - which makes vote rigging very obvious - so they are doing everything to deter opposition supporters from coming out on election day to vote. 

Friday, December 28, 2018

Is it time to give the BNP another chance?

Awami League activists campaigning 
With my father-in-law, Dr Kamal Hossain deciding (surprisingly) a couple of months ago to lead the opposition alliance, I have kept away from writing professionally about this election and restricted my thoughts to this blog, focusing primarily on polls and the issue of the fairness of the election.

However, I thought I should write at least one article considering the merits of the two competing party blocs.

As I was writing this post, Anis Ahmed's op-ed for the New York Times,  Bangladesh’s Choice: Authoritarianism or Extremism popped into my in-tray, so I shall set out my thoughts on the two party blocs through reviewing his article.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Awami League's new crisis of legitimacy

"Election fraud"
In 2014, Bangladesh opposition parties boycotted the national election claiming that a vote taking place under the Awami League government - rather than a caretaker government* - would be rigged. 

The Awami League government at the time rejected that argument claiming that they could be trusted to hold a free and fair election. 

Without the participation of the opposition, the Awami League "won" the 2014 election.

However, without a contested election, the Awami League government, particularly in the first few years after 2014, faced a serious legitimacy problem, both at home and abroad. 

Here was a government, many argued, that was only in power, on the back of uncontested elections.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Election 2018: A disgrace of a website

On the very same day that Facebook exposed the Bangladesh government over fake news, another of its websites, Banglainsider has published a totally fictional and defamatory story about me. And yesterday the website published yet another one.

One can only wonder how desperate the Awami League government must be right now if it feels a need to get its hired hands to publish these kinds of stories which have no basis at all in fact.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Facebook exposes Bangladesh govt fake news

Bangladesh's Awami League government has been publishing fake news for years, but this week Facebook and Twitter exposed it for doing so.

On December 20, 2018, Facebook published a press release titled,  "Taking Down Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior in Bangladesh". It stated:
"Today we removed nine Facebook Pages and six Facebook accounts for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior on our platform in Bangladesh. Through our investigation, which began in part based on a tip from Graphika, a threat intelligence company that we work with, we discovered that these Pages were designed to look like independent news outlets and posted pro-government and anti-opposition content. Our investigation indicates that this activity is linked to individuals associated with the Bangladesh government."

Election 2018: Sajeeb Wazed Joy's poll half-truths

Sajeeb Wazed Joy, the son of the Bangladesh prime minister and one of her key advisors, has published the results of a poll that he commissioned in 51 constituencies, with 1000 people surveyed from each of these constituencies. He says that
"The 51 constituencies were selected from a mathematical analysis of all national election results from 1991 to 2008. These 51 were the ones that switched parties the most or had the narrowest margins of victory on average. These were the constituencies that our party was most concerned with."
He goes onto say that, "The average AL vote is 66% to BNP's 19.9%, with an average 8.6% undecided."
"On a party basis the Awami League leads in all 51, with the smallest lead 12.2% in Joypurhat-1 and the largest 75% in Barishal-4. The smallest undecided vote is 2.5% in Tangail-3 where the AL lead is 41.5% and the largest is 19.8% in Shatkhira-3 where the AL lead is 64.7%, far above the undecided vote.
This all seems very positive towards the Awami League. However, Joy is not telling the full story about these polls.