The future of Bangladesh is at a critical juncture. Gross injustices and human rights violations have engulfed the people of Bangladesh, led by the ruling Awami League. Under the government’s watch, democracy has merely been a façade for the real system of manipulation, pressure, violence, and entrenched authority.
After a brutal nine-month clash in the early 1970s, Bangladesh was established out of East Pakistan in what continues to be one of the world’s most violent conflicts since the conclusion of World War II. Those affiliated with Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), which, along with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), is now one of Bangladesh’s opposition parties, were non-separatists. Others, such as those now known as the Awami League, were fighting for a separate country.
In 1973 the new government passed the International Crimes Act, which authorized the investigation and prosecution of people responsible for crimes against humanity during the country’s struggle for independence. However, the act did not establish a tribunal and was not implemented for over thirty-five years.
After the Awami League won the general election in 2008, they revived the International Crimes Act and used it as a basis to establish the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT). The Awami League claimed that the ICT would be used to prosecute and investigate suspects of the genocide committed by the Pakistani Army and their collaborators, with which many of the political parties that came out of the non-separatist movement were wrongly believed to be associated. However, it quickly became clear that the trials were failing to meet the most basic standards of justice. Without presenting tangible evidence, the tribunals declared that over three million people were killed and 200,000 women were raped in 1971, stating that the bulk of these crimes were committed by those now associated with JI and BNP.
As a political weapon of the Awami League, the ICT has convicted leaders of JI and BNP based on less-than-satisfactory evidence, sentencing many to death or life in prison. Awami League activists continuously single out opposition parties and refuse to try their own comrades for the countless violations they have committed against their own people.
Trials were hastened at the end of 2013, ahead of the general elections in January, and the BNP has accused the government of using the tribunal as a political tool to mislead Bangladeshi youth and quell dissent through fear. A verdict issued on February 28, 2013 by the tribunal sentenced 73-year-old Vice President Delwar Hossain Sayede, a member of Jamaat-e-Islami and preacher, to death. This ignited unrest from JI and BNP supporters against government security forces across the country, resulting in a number of deaths mostly at the hands of these government forces.
Around this time, the government also began to crack down on media critics. The law minister announced that the government was going to increase its control over online news websites, social media, and blogs. The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission began shutting down opposition news outlets, charging editors with sedition and unlawful publication.
The Awami League has also orchestrated massive campaigns to destroy any opposition through unwarranted arrests and extrajudicial killings, utilizing the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). The RAB is an anti-terrorism division within the Bangladesh Police that has carried out numerous illegal killings and unlawful acts, primarily against political opponents.
Although the RAB’s actions have been suspect during much of Bangladesh’s modern history, the Awami League pledged to bring the battalion under control during the 2008 election. Nevertheless, abuses continued to persist after the election, this time heavily targeting the Awami League’s opposition. Government authorities have failed to investigate and prosecute accused RAB criminals, and, while the RAB did establish an internal investigation unit, no RAB member has ever faced criminal prosecution for human rights violations.
Furthermore, the Awami League government has effectively seized the democratic process from the people of Bangladesh. By amending an article of the constitution, the Awami League maintained power during elections instead of allowing a neutral caretaker government to assume power during the election process as the constitution originally stated. This maneuvering caused opponents to question the accuracy and authenticity of the elections ahead of the polls.
The Bangladesh Parliamentary elections held on January 5, 2014 were boycotted by almost all major opposition parties, thus rendering half the electorate unable to exercise their true opinions. It has been reported that 151 people were killed while protesting or responding to protests during the general elections.
The subsequent sub-district elections also resulted in many deaths, and peaceful anti-Awami League protests were violently suppressed during elections by Bangladesh police forces in cities across the nation. Disappearances of opposition leaders orchestrated by the government have been denied and even blamed on the opposition parties themselves. It has been reported that Awami League supporters forcibly took over polling stations and prohibited pro-opposition polling agents from entering the facilities during multiple phases of sub-district elections, with security forces and local administration officials complicit in their activities. Additional reports have stated that the Awami League handed out bribes to secure votes and even paid children to place illegal votes. Many polling sites remained empty for most of the polling days, yet surprisingly reported a high number of votes in favor of the Awami League.
Despite these efforts, the people of Bangladesh fought to have their voices heard, electing a significant number of the opposition members to office in spite of the difficulties and countermeasures. Elected opposition members still faced further repression. On their way to take the oath of office, a number of elected opposition members were arrested and one was killed, sending a strong message to the rest of the opposition not to take their elected seats.
Political violence in Bangladesh accounted for the deaths of 507 people in 2013, marking the deadliest year for such violence since the country’s independence in 1971. Further violence can only be expected unless reforms are made by the ruling government, including holding new elections. To ensure the validity of new elections, international observers must be allowed to monitor the proceedings. Reforms must be made to the judicial system, and the ICT must be at the forefront. Moving the ICT outside of Bangladesh to a third party country will assist in keeping the proceedings objective and prevent it from being used as a political tool. Furthermore, the Awami League needs to go beyond their electoral promises of bringing the RAB into check. The history of violence that exists concerning the RAB is more than enough evidence to support its disbandment. The United States should be hesitant to engage in any military relationship with Bangladesh and should suspend any current military cooperation until these reforms are made.
Despite its rhetoric, the current regime has made it transparent through its actions that it has no desire for a justice-based society that provides safety, dignity, and individual freedom for all the people of Bangladesh. The international community must come together to urge for institutional and political reform if true democracy and good governance are to be realized.