Bangladesh Military Accused of Stalling on Elections

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 25, 2007

A state of emergency in Bangladesh that has included the banning of political activity and a free press and led to extrajudicial killings is masking efforts by the military and its backers to stall parliamentary elections, human rights activists and observers say.

President Iajuddin Ahmed declared the state of emergency Jan. 11 to quell months of political unrest generated by charges from the opposition that voter registration rosters had been inflated by the ruling Bangladesh National Party ahead of elections originally scheduled for Jan. 22.

In a report Sept. 11, the nonprofit National Democratic Institute for International Affairs expressed alarm over preparations for the vote and the composition of the electoral commission. An institute delegation led by former senator Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said in a statement that voter lists with 93 million names, in a country with a population of 144 million, were "substantially inconsistent with the 2001 census data." The institute said it would not certify the election process as fair or unfair.

Under threat of a boycott by the Awami League, an alliance of opposition parties, the elections were postponed; a new date has not been set. In his first address to the country, Fakhruddin Ahmed, who took over as head of a caretaker government Jan. 12, promised early this week that the vote would be "meaningful" and "free of corruption and terrorism."

A crackdown to quell election-related violence has resulted in 19 deaths in the past 10 days, according to Odhikar, a Bangladeshi human rights group. About 2,000 people have been arrested, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Bangladeshi journalists say.

Street protests initially began in the fall when Iajuddin Ahmed, the outgoing president, put himself in charge of a caretaker government, forgoing procedures that mandated appointing someone from the judiciary, Hameeda Hossain, a human rights activist, said in an interview by telephone from New York.

The caretaker government had three months to organize the elections. By law, voter rosters must be published and sent to voting centers.

When U.S.-based civic rights groups criticized the preparations for the elections, pointing out that 14 million extra names appeared on the voter lists, the opposition and its supporters vowed not to participate. The United Nations and the European Union said they were pulling out their observers because conditions were not adequate for a free and fair election.

The state instituted draconian measures, including press restrictions, some of which were subsequently lifted. Then, the army stepped in.

"The military has a very dangerous record of using extrajudicial force," Fred Abrahams of Human Rights Watch said in an interview from New York. In 2002, Operation Clean Heart, ostensibly an anti-crime program, led to the arrests of many, and 50 people died in custody, he added.

Tasneem Khalil, an editor at the Daily Star, an English-language newspaper, said Ahmed and his government took charge with military support. Khalil referred to what the Financial Times of London labeled "military-backed technocratic rule."

Another question is "who is running the show, what is exactly going on backstage," the journalist said. "To cloud the situation more, a section of the army along with a section of civil society, with extra-special ties with the army, want to defer elections at least a year and a half," Khalil said in an e-mail Tuesday.

"We don't really want a Pakistan-like solution, where someone like [Gen. Pervez] Musharraf decrees he is staying in power," Hossain said, referring to the Pakistani president. "What he ends up doing is encouraging the fundamentalists if the army stays on and on."

Hossain, the wife of Kamal Hossain, one of the original drafters of Bangladesh's constitution, lamented the unhealthy confrontation between the country's two main parties, a situation that has typified the country's numerous strikes and street protests, but added that her countrymen were ready for change and were looking for individuals who are not into politics for the money.

"I am sure people are tired of political parties. Out of 35 years, 15 years we have had military rule, ever since we won independence from Pakistan in 1971. Right now what happens if one party wins the election? They go all out to intimidate the other," Hossain said, adding that she plans to return home Jan. 29.

In one neighborhood of Dhaka, 20,000 people were evicted from their slum a few days ago. "The government is going out of its way to do what, cave in to business interests? They are using force against street peddlers and hawkers," she said. "None of this would have happened if the military had not stepped in. The army should come under the constitution and not act above it."

Poverty in Bangladesh has made its mostly Muslim population vulnerable to recruitment by Islamic militant organizations. Hossain said such groups exploited previous situations to make political headway.

"If people cannot express their rights freely, then fundamentalist groups will have more influence," she said. "Now, no political activity is allowed. With the absence of political participation, mosques will be used by the right-wing religious parties. This cannot be a good thing."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company