Dhaka, Bangladesh – With less than a week remaining before Bangladesh’s much anticipated parliamentary elections, the main opposition Jatiya Oikya Front (National Unity Front) has accused the government of carrying out mass arrests of its leaders and supporters.
Seven thousand activists and leaders have been arrested since the election schedule was announced in November, the opposition alliance said in a press release on Monday.
The alliance has alleged that they have also faced violent attacks from police and the ruling Awami League (AL) party supporters.
The opposition alliance claims election campaign activities of its candidates have come under repeated attacks, making it impossible for them to gather freely in public spaces.
“There hasn’t ever been a situation like this before in an election in Bangladesh’s history,” said Jahangir Alam Mintu, a spokesperson of the Jatiya Oikya Front.
US-based right group Human Rights Watch, in a report published on December 22, urged Bangladesh authorities to protect candidates and ensure a credible election.
Terming the current political climate in Bangladesh “repressive”, the New York-based rights body said it is “undermining the credibility” of the upcoming election.
The report also found that “authoritarian measures, including widespread surveillance and a crackdown on free speech, have contributed to a widely described climate of fear”.
Zia barred from contesting the polls
The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) said on Sunday its website was shut down along with 54 other portals over purported security reasons amid accusation that the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been clamping down on dissent.
Its main leader and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia has been barred from contesting the polls as she is serving jail term for corruption. She has termed the charges political motivated.
The BNP leader Shamsuzzaman Dudu said that the opposition is not being allowed to carry out any public activities without risk of being attacked or arrested.
“We want to contest the election but the minimum freedom necessary for an election does not exist. We cannot do campaign works. We are being charged in false police cases,” he said.
Dudu’s BNP is the biggest political party in the four-party opposition alliance that is challenging Hasina, who is seeking to return to power for a third consecutive time.
The opposition leader accused the police of biased towards the ruling party.
“If from tomorrow there is no police force on the ground, I think that will ensure the most free and fair election,” he said, adding that police’s only role is to remove the opposition from the election.
Attacks on the opposition alliance candidate Afroza Abbas, who is running from the Dhaka 9 constituency, came under spotlight as videos surfaced on social media showing men with brickbats and sticks attacking her election rally.
Since her election campaign began on December 12, she claims there have been four attacks on her rallies.
“I have shown the pictures and videos to the election commissioners. They said they have properly instructed the police to stop these attacks. But they keep attacking. My driver was severely injured in the last attack and he needed 22 stiches,” Abbas told Al Jazeera.
She admitted that since last week, the police actually tried to protect her but it did not make any arrests for the previous attacks.
“I recognise the attackers. They are Jubo League (a youth wing of the ruling Awami League) people. But the police don’t arrest them,” she said.
Police deny allegations
Police denied the opposition allegations and said that there is “clear instructions from the police headquarters to carry out their duties according to the rule of law and maintain due process”.
“If there is an aggrieved party which feels that they are being charged in a case by the police without due procedure, then they can file complaints and ask for appropriate redress,” Sohel Rana, the Additional Inspector General (Media) of Bangladesh Police, told Al Jazeera.
He promised that each and every allegation will be investigated.
“We cannot respond to vague allegations. If there is a mistake we will take appropriate actions,” he said.
At least six people have died in election-related violence so far. On Monday, the military began to deploy across the South Asian nation of over 160 million people.
Kamal Hossain, who has emerged as the face of the opposition alliance, welcomed the deployment of thousands of military personnel.
Al Jazeera reached out to the Election Commission office as well as the ruling party officials but did not receive a response at time of the publication.
The Bangladesh government has also come under scrutiny for dragging its feet on furnishing visas to international election observers.
The US State Department on Friday expressed “disappointment” over Bangladesh government’s “inability” to grant credentials and issue visas for monitors from Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL).
Bangladesh’s Foreign Ministry said it was “disheartened” at the US statement.
“Accreditation of international election observers from a number of organizations including ANFREL is currently under process. In addition, the Election Commission has registered 118 local organizations and also approved 25,920 local observers to monitor the polls,” it said in a statement.
Ali Riaz, a political science professor with Illinois State University, said that the incident is disconcerting.
“I will not be surprised if it is read by the US policymakers, including the Congress, as an unwillingness of the Bangladeshi government to ensure a credible and acceptable election,” Riaz told Al Jazeera.
He said that the explanation of the Election Commission regarding the accreditation process is not convincing.
“This points to an unwillingness of the EC and Bangladeshi government to cooperate with foreign observers, even when the number is very small compared to any previous participatory elections.
“Add this to the absence of a level-playing field, large scale arrests of opposition candidates and activists, the impunity enjoyed by the ruling party activists in perpetrating violence, the credibility and integrity of the election is increasingly becoming questionable,” said Riaz.
Additional reporting by Saugato Boso from Dhaka