U.S. says Bangladesh elections not free or fair; UN also voices concern over violence, irregularities

The U.S. State Department said Washington remains concerned by the arrests of thousands of political Opposition members and by reports of irregularities on elections day in Bangladesh.

January 09, 2024 10:47 am | Updated 12:34 pm IST - United Nations/Washington

The newly elected Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina.

The newly elected Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina. | Photo Credit: Reuters

A day after Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's party emerged victorious at the polls, the U.S. and United Nations (UN) voiced concern over violence and reports of irregularities on the day of elections, with Washington noting that the polls were not free or fair and regretted that not all parties participated in the ballot.

The U.S. State Department, in a press statement on January 9, said that Washington remains concerned by the arrests of thousands of political Opposition members and by reports of irregularities on elections day in Bangladesh.

“The United States shares the view with other observers that these elections were not free or fair and we regret that not all parties participated,” the State Department said.

While noting that Sheikh Hasina's Awami League won a majority of seats in the January 7 Parliamentary elections, the State Department said that Washington condemns violence that took place during elections and in the months leading up to it.

“We encourage the Government of Bangladesh to credibly investigate reports of violence and to hold perpetrators accountable. We also urge all political parties to reject violence,” it said.

The State Department added that the U.S. supports the people of Bangladesh and their aspirations for democracy, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of expression.

“Looking ahead, the United States remains committed to partnering with Bangladesh to advance our shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific, to supporting human rights and civil society in Bangladesh, and to deepening our people-to-people and economic ties,” it said.

UN Human Rights Chief Volker Türk called on Bangladesh’s newly elected government to take steps to renew the country’s commitment to democracy and human rights, voicing distress that the environment for Sunday’s poll was marred by violence and repression of Opposition candidates and supporters.

“In the months leading up to the vote, thousands of Opposition supporters have been detained arbitrarily or subjected to intimidation. Such tactics are not conducive to a truly genuine process,” Mr. Türk said.

The top UN human rights official noted that democracy was “hard won” in Bangladesh and "must not become cosmetic.” Underlining that Bangladesh has been a role model of development, Mr. Türk said he “fervently hopes this will translate into the political and institutional spheres too. The future of all Bangladeshis is at stake.”

The UN official noted that mass arrests, threats, enforced disappearances, blackmailing and surveillance were all methods reportedly used by law enforcement officials prior to the ballot, which was boycotted by the main Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Acts of political violence, including arson attacks allegedly committed by Opposition groups, have also been reported.

“Around 25,000 Opposition supporters have been arrested, including key party leaders, since October, the UN official said. At least 10 Opposition supporters reportedly died – or were killed – in custody in the last two months, raising serious concerns about possible torture or harsh conditions of detention,” the UN Human Rights chief said.

He said many human rights defenders have been forced to go into hiding and some have fled the country, while dozens of suspected enforced disappearance cases have been reported, mostly in November.

“These incidents must be independently investigated, and those responsible must be brought to justice in fair and transparent trials,” Mr. Türk said. “Violations and irregularities during the campaign and on election day itself should also be thoroughly and effectively investigated.” Mr. Türk implored the government to take the necessary steps to ensure that the human rights of all Bangladeshis are fully taken into account, and to strengthen the underpinnings of a truly inclusive democracy in the country.

Associate spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Florencia Soto Niño, in response to a question on whether the UN believes the elections were free and fair, said, “We have seen the situation that's unfolding there. The Secretary-General continues to follow what's happening. He notes the Opposition’s decision to boycott the elections.”

She said the UN chief is “obviously concerned” about reports of incidents of violence prior to, and during the elections. Mr. Guterres calls on all parties to reject all forms of violence and to ensure that human rights and the rule of law are fully respected. “This is essential for the consolidation of democracy and economic prosperity there,” she said.

In response to another question, she said it is essential that the Bangladesh government fosters an environment of democracy. “Respect and reject all forms of violence, and obviously ensure that human rights are respected there,” she said.

Awami League (AL) won 223 seats in the 300-member Parliament on Sunday in the polls boycotted by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main Opposition.

The Bangladesh government had invited a large number of foreign observers from India and other countries, as well as multilateral organisations, to observe the elections.

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