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Election Time in Bangladesh: Minorities Face Risks of More Rights Violations

ICC Note:
The issues surrounding the upcoming general elections in Bangladesh are complex, but one critical aspect is that the ruling party has been infiltrated by Islamic extremists who have incited persecution against Christians, and their continued attempts to maintain power cause even greater insecurity for all minority religions.

ACHR WEEKLY REVIEW (11/01/06) – With the general elections slated for January 2007, Bangladesh is virtually on the brink of a serious political collapse. Violent clashes between the supporters of the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Jamaat-e-Islami, Islami Okyo Jote and Jatiya Party (M) and the 14-party Opposition led by Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League so far claimed 24 lives and injured hundreds. Political gatherings have been banned in many parts of the country.

On 26 October 2006, the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party led by Prime Minister Begum Khalida Zia split and about 100 party leaders including 12 Ministers including State Minister Alamgir Kabir, Deputy Minister Moni Swapan Dewan, PM’s Adviser on Primary and Mass Education, Prof Jahanara Begum quit the BNP to form a new political party, Liberal Democratic Party.

The formation of the Liberal Democratic Party is an expression of negation against the BNP’s alliance with the Jihadis. The BNP has been facing opposition for links with the Jihadis. On 26 September 2005, BNP’s International Affairs Secretary Syed Najibul Bashar Maizbhandari resigned from the party, protesting the government’s ‘failure to act’ against Jamaat-e-Islami. In November 2005, BNP expelled lawmaker Abu Hena from the party for his statement that there was hand of the party in emergence of the outlawed Jamaatul-Mujahedeen Bangladesh.

It remains to be seen whether the Jatiya Party led by former President H M Ershad will support the BNP led fundamentalist alliance or whether the Liberal Democratic Party form an alliance with the Awami League. As the electoral prospects of the BNP and the Awami League hang in balance, the minorities who constitute about 12% of the total population can be crucial in many constituencies. The importance of the minorities also increases the risks of being attacked both prior to and after the general elections.

i. A ruling-party “Caretaker government”?

The Constitution of Bangladesh provides for appointment of a non-party caretaker government headed by the immediate former Chief Justice of Supreme Court to conduct the elections in a free and fair atmosphere.

But the Opposition parties were strongly against the appointment of immediate former Chief Justice, Justice K.M. Hasan on the ground that he is a founder member of the BNP and therefore is not fit to head the non-party caretaker government. Suspicion had been brewing in the minds of the Opposition parties over the political motive of the ruling government since May 2004 when the BNP-led government passed the Constitution (Fourteenth Amendment) Bill 2004 to increase the retirement age of the Supreme Court Judges from 65 to 67 years with alleged calculations that Justice K.M. Hasan would be the immediate retired Chief Justice to head the caretaker government in 2006.

On 28 October 2006, Justice K.M. Hasan refused to be the “Chief Advisor” of the caretaker government. Under Article 58C of the Constitution of Bangladesh, Justice Mahmudul Amin Chowdhury, who is the second immediate former Chief Justice, should be appointed the “Chief Advisor”. But in a controversial move, on 29 October 2006 the country’s President Iajuddin Ahmed took over as the “chief advisor” of the non-party caretaker government bypassing Justice Mahmudul Amin Chowdhury. The caretaker government was sworn in on 30 October 2006.

Even the Election Commission (EC) of Bangladesh has been accused of being partial towards BNP. The credibility the Election Commission was further eroded because of its defiance of the High Court’s directives of 4 January 2006 not to prepare a fresh voters list, which the Awami League alleged was full of “ghost voters”. On 23 May 2006, the Supreme Court rejected the EC’s appeal against the HC directive.

ii. 2001 general elections

Violence against the minorities, especially the Hindus, during the October 2001 general elections was well documented. Prior to voting, minorities were harassed and threatened against voting for a certain political party and were obstructed from casting their votes.

The minorities faced a backlash after the election which was won by the BNP-Jamaat alliance. Several Hindus were reportedly killed, about 100 women were raped and their houses burnt. Hundreds of Hindu families were driven out of their homes. The attacks particularly took place in Barisal, Bhola, parts of Pirojpur, Khulna, Satkhira, Gopalganj, Bagerhat, Jessore, Commilla and Norsingdi.

The attacks continued over a month. On the midnight of 5 November 2001, one Sunil Das Sandhu was reportedly hacked to death and 16 others injured in an attack by a gang of miscreants against the Hindus at Daspara village in Mithanala union under Mirersarai Upazila. The attackers ransacked and looted the houses of the Hindus, and beat up the family members after dragging them out of their houses.

There was virtual impunity for the atrocities perpetrated against the minorities after the general elections in October 2001. In a rare case of justice against violence against minority women, on 19 June 2005, the sessions court in Bhola sentenced five ruling partymen to life imprisonment for raping two women of the minority community in Lalmohon upazila on 3 October 2001 after the elections.

iii. Need for protection against attacks on minorities

Under the BNP-Jamaat alliance rule, intolerance and violence against the minorities increased substantially. Minority Hindus, Christians and Buddhists faced serious persecution including physical attacks, killing, abduction, threat, torture, rape, destruction of temple and grabbing of their lands.

The ruling party activists were responsible for the systematic attacks. Some of the atrocities perpetrated in 2005 include the destruction of a Hindu temple and three idols by one Rashid s/o Nurul Islam alias Kina and several of his accomplices in Lalbagh on 25 January 2005, rampaging of two Hindu temples and idols at Sandira village of Adamdighi upazila in Bogra on 17 March 2005, vandalisation of a Durga temple at Palora village in Manikganj on 15 September 2005 and attacks at three puja mandaps in Khulna, Faridpur and Jessore on 6 October 2005.

The lands of the religious minorities continued to be grabbed by the political party leaders and thugs. In February 2005, ‘Siddique Bahini’ men tortured and forcibly occupied the land of 14 poor Hindu families at Kapalipara village in Patuakhali. On 27 March 2005, the BNP thugs attacked Hindu families at village Chhoto Shanta in Debhata upazila, Satkhira and grabbed 42 bighas of land. At least 10 persons were injured when they tried to resist the attackers.

Similar atrocities against the Hindu minorities were also reported throughout 2006.

As the polls draw near, the minorities have been increasingly feeling insecure. Providing full security to the minorities and ensuring their right to participate in the elections without fear and intimidation must be the priority of the non-party caretaker government. International community too must press for the protection of the minorities in Bangladesh.