The risk of political violence in Bangladesh remains a concern. While political violence related to protests has declined since Bangladesh’s parliamentary elections in January 2014, NGOs reported a spike in the number of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances in the months following the election. New policies and legislation developed in 2014 have also generated concerns about restrictions on civil society space and media freedoms.
Bangladesh’s 10th parliamentary elections on 5 January 2014 were not contested by the former opposition 18-Party Alliance, including the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), due to concerns that free and fair elections could not be held in the absence of a neutral caretaker government. With over half the parliamentary seats uncontested, the Awami League won a second successive term. Twenty-one deaths were reported on polling day and over 100 school-based polling centres burnt down. Since the election, the BNP have committed to peaceful protest, and there have been significantly fewer enforced general strikes and transport blockades than in 2013.
In a statement on 6 January, the then Minister for Human Rights, Baroness Warsi, urged all of Bangladesh’s political parties to work together to address political accountability. She deplored the acts of intimidation and unlawful violence from all parties, and called on all Bangladesh’s political parties to work together to strengthen democratic accountability and to build a willingness and capacity to hold future participatory elections without the fear of intimidation or reprisals. On 22 January, the UK’s High Commissioner in Bangladesh condemned the violence in his meetings with the Bangladesh Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Minister, the Minister of Communications, and the Minister of Commerce.
All the main political parties fielded candidates in local sub-district (Upazila) elections in March. After trailing the BNP in the first two rounds, the Awami League won most seats in the final three rounds. This was accompanied by a significant increase in NGO and media reports of intimidation and interference in the electoral process. Baroness Warsi discussed the matter with the Bangladesh High Commissioner to the UK on 13 May. She called on the Bangladesh Election Commission to mount a full and transparent investigation into the reports and to take appropriate action.
The then Minister of State for the Department for International Development, Alan Duncan, visited Bangladesh in March. In his meetings with Prime Minister-Sheikh Hasina, the Leader of the Opposition, the Finance Minister, the State Foreign Minister, and the BNP Chairperson, Begum Zia, he discussed the need for early progress towards a more sustainable political settlement, stressing that violence had no place in democracy.
A Human Rights Watch report (2013) found that impunity in all of Bangladesh’s law enforcement bodies continues to be a serious problem. NGOs reported over a hundred extrajudicial killings (EJKs) in the first six months of 2014. A spike in the number of cross-fire killings in January and February, allegedly perpetrated by law enforcers, drew condemnation from NGOs.
In May, seven men abducted in broad daylight and later found dead in a nearby river in Narayanganj resulted in domestic and international criticism. Allegations that members of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) were responsible for the disappearance and murder prompted the Bangladesh Parliament, the High Court and civil society to call for investigations. The Government promised that anyone found guilty would be punished. Three former RAB members have confessed to their involvement in the deaths, but no charges have yet been brought.
Meanwhile, there has been pressure on space for civil society as the Bangladesh government introduces new legislation, or amends the provisions of existing legislation and regulation. Those using digital media to criticise the government have been detained under the Information Communications Technology Act. Proposed amendments to the Foreign Donations Act could limit the work of civil society if they add further procedural requirements to existing regulations governing NGOs in receipt of foreign donations.
Two other recent developments reinforce views among civil society that the Bangladesh government is closing the potential channels for criticism or dissent. A recently formulated National Broadcast Policy (2014) has generated concern over potential restrictions to media freedom. According to the Bangladesh government, the policy will strengthen accountability and responsibility in the fiercely competitive sector by providing “guidance” to in-house editorial boards on programme content, and by regulating licensing decisions and advertising standards. The broad scope of the “editorial guidance” has provoked widespread concern amongst journalists and civil society. Two TV stations and one newspaper have been fully or partially shut down, and some civil society organisations report increasing levels of surveillance, harassment and intimidation. More recently, the government introduced a new Constitutional Amendment restoring Parliament’s authority to impeach members of the judiciary.
Prime Minister David Cameron met Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on 22 July. He noted our disappointment over the election. Both agreed on the importance of an open society and political system in which democratic political participation and media freedoms are respected.
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