As Bangladesh moves toward the next national elections — likely to be held in January — opposition political parties are accusing the country’s security forces of an escalation in repression.
Hundreds of thousands of leaders, activists and supporters of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the country’s largest opposition party, have faced “fictitious” charges of violence, party leaders allege.
“Every prospective BNP general election candidate has at least dozens of cases filed against him by the police or members of the ruling party,” AKM Wahiduzzaman, the BNP’s information and technology affairs secretary, told VOA.
The Awami League is the ruling party in Bangladesh.
“These ghost cases are mostly intended to keep the BNP leaders and workers away from election-related activities,” Wahiduzzaman said. “The cases are also aimed at getting the prospective BNP election candidates convicted by the court and disqualified for election. The government is resorting to all means to keep BNP away from election.”
The 2014 elections were boycotted by the BNP, and the 2018 elections were marred by widespread allegations of massive vote stuffing — a charge that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has repeatedly denied. BNP leaders and other critics say they fear the Awami League will rig the next election.
For months, the BNP and other opposition parties have organized political rallies and demanded Hasina’s resignation to make way for a nonpartisan caretaker government ahead of the next election. Hasina’s government has not accepted the demand.
BNP leaders allege their political rallies are being attacked by the police and armed Awami League activists, and that their leaders and supporters are being set up on spurious charges of violence and sabotage.
According to the office of the BNP, between 2009 and July 2023, more than 138,000 cases were filed against more than 4 million leaders and activists of the BNP and its member organizations.
Disqualified from the election
BNP joint Secretary General Habib Un Nabi Khan Sohel, accused in more than 450 cases, told VOA on Monday that he was in court daily.
“For the past three months, I have been in court from morning to evening, attending hearings of four to six cases every day. Many of my senior party colleagues are facing identical situations in court,” said Sohel, who was arrested in a violence-related case and barred from contesting the 2018 general elections.
Trials of about a dozen cases against him have been fast-tracked, and he said he fears being convicted and disqualified as an election candidate.
At least 44 senior BNP leaders have been sent to jail, Wahiduzzaman said.
“In politically influenced courts, over 200 cases against senior BNP leaders have been fast-tracked. All these trials are aimed to get the accused BNP leaders convicted in coming weeks and disqualify them from the next election,” he said.
Bangladeshi pro-democracy activist Pinaki Bhattacharya, who is in exile in France, said Hasina has long used judicial cases based “on trumped-up charges” to keep her opponents away from general elections.
“The Bangladesh police filed many cases accusing opposition political activists of bombing different places. Later inquiries by media, private fact-finders and pro-democracy activists revealed that no bombing had taken place there at all. They even filed cases against dead people, accusing them of committing violence on the street,” Bhattacharya, a popular YouTuber, told VOA.
“The police filed cases on trumped-up charges targeting senior opposition leaders before the 2018 general elections. They are repeating the same mischievous strategy this time so that the opposition parties cannot take part in the next elections freely.”
Mohammad Faruk Hossain, spokesperson for the Dhaka Metropolitan Police, told VOA that the police “never” lodge what is being called a “ghost case.”
“The police file a case against one only when it is found that the person has been involved in criminal activities. They [the opposition activists] are indulging in vandalism and arson in the name of political activities. They are also assaulting the police,” Hossain said.
“The cases are being filed against them according to law because they are resorting to violence. Our force always works within the legal frame,” he said.
Free and fair elections
Since 2022, the United States and other countries have been urging the Hasina government to hold the next general election in a free and fair manner.
Last week, Washington announced it was “taking steps to impose visa restrictions” on Bangladeshi individuals who are found complicit in “undermining the democratic electoral process” in Bangladesh.
These individuals include “current and former Bangladeshi officials, members of the opposition and ruling political parties, and members of law enforcement, the judiciary, and security services” and “members of their immediate family,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in an announcement on September 22.
Hasina, in the United States for the United Nations General Assembly, said in a New York press conference in New York that if “any foreign country conspired to sabotage” the election in Bangladesh, people in her country would “impose sanctions” on that nation.
“It was the people of Bangladesh who voted our party to power. We indeed want the elections in Bangladesh to be free and fair,” Hasina said.
BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said Hasina’s government and party have already prepared a blueprint laying out how they will use the ruling party cadres and civil and police administration to conduct the election.
“Some days ago, the district commissioner of Jamalpur urged people openly to vote for the ruling party. In a leaked telephone conversation, the officer in charge of a police station in Rajshahi was overheard saying he had been recently posted there by a minister to ensure that the ruling party candidate won the next election,” Alamgir told VOA.
“This is clear that the government is preparing to massively rig the next election again. If we take part in such an election, it would be like supporting a big crime,” Alamgir said.