Free, Fair Polls: US rights bodies urge sanctions, other steps
Rights bodies in the US called for policy tools, including additional sanctions, for ensuring free and fair elections in Bangladesh.
Political violence remains high, competing political rallies result in clashes, and the opposition's demonstrations often face crackdowns, they said.
The call was made at a briefing hosted by Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bipartisan body of the US House of Representatives, on the human rights situation in Bangladesh.
Panellists from the Asian Human Rights Commission, Robert F Kennedy Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, US Institute of Peace, and International Republican Institute participated in it.
In 2021, the US imposed sanctions against Rab and some of its top officials for human rights violations, and in May this year, it announced a visa policy restricting visas for those involved in vote rigging.
"We believe that until impartial and effective accountability mechanisms are adopted by the Government of Bangladesh to investigate and address such violations, the US must not lift the existing sanctions and must consider additional sanctions against other security forces, such as the Detective Branch and Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, that partake in similar violations throughout Bangladesh," said Kristi Ueda of the Robert F Kennedy Human Rights.
As seen in the lead up to the 2018 election, the Bangladesh government continued its efforts to close civic space ahead of the January 2024 election through its targeting of civil society organisations, human rights defenders, journalists, and others considered critical of the government, she said.
These individuals and their families have been subjected to retaliatory arrests, harassment, and intimidation by state officials, who have enjoyed impunity for their misconduct, she added. Freedom of expression and free press continue to erode in Bangladesh.
In the first half of 2023, human rights organisation Odhikar documented 151 attacks on journalists, Ueda said.
Also, the government attacked media outlets, ordering the closure of 191 websites it accused of publishing "anti-state news" in January 2023.
The government's attempts to stifle critical voices have become increasingly brazen, with the prime minister criticising the nation's leading daily newspaper, calling it "an enemy" to Awami League, "an enemy of democracy," and "an enemy of the country's people" after the newspaper published a report on high food prices.
In addition, Bangladesh has severely curtailed the rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly. The treatment of Odhikar is emblematic of the ongoing targeting of human rights defenders and organisations for doing their important work, she said.
The US must emphasise to Bangladesh that should they want to address the human rights violations underlying the sanction designations, then going after those who are documenting and exposing these violations instead of holding perpetrators accountable does nothing positive for their human rights record, Ueda said in her written statement.
The US must stress that an open civic space is necessary for a functioning democracy, especially in the lead up to the January 2024 election. Bangladesh must ensure an enabling environment for journalists, human rights defenders, and organisations to conduct their important work without fear of harassment, intimidation, and reprisals.
Geoffrey Macdonald, who represented the US Institute of Peace and International Republican Institute, said the political environment in Bangladesh has improved to some degree over the past year.
The BNP and other opposition parties have held large rallies to criticise the government. Independent and opposition candidates have won local-level elections, indicating a degree of electoral fairness, but political violence still remains high.
"It is vital that members and supporters of all political parties avoid violence and that Bangladesh's security forces protect all sides," he said.
Second, the actions of the Bangladesh Election Commission often lack clarity. For example, the recent decision of Bangladesh's Election Commission to grant registration to relatively unknown political parties while denying registration to established and active political parties appears arbitrary, he said.
She said media sources report that thousands of opposition party members and activists currently face legal cases on a variety of charges. While Bangladesh's judiciary can and should apply the law to all citizens, it is imperative to avoid the appearance of bias.
Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman of Asian Human Rights Commission said the designation of sanctions against the Rab by the US has created significant impacts. Between January 2009 and June 2023, there have been 2,683 cases of extrajudicial killings. In 2021, such killings were 107, but in 2022, the number came down to 31 and from January to June 2023, only 8 people faced extrajudicial killings.
"We would urge the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the US Congress to utilise its full mandate to minimise the human costs that the Bangladeshis have been paying…"