The European Union urged Bangladesh on Monday to form an independent commission to hold the next general election, scheduled for late 2018 or early 2019, in a free, fair, participatory way.
The EU, in its annual report on human rights and democracy, chastised the government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for allowing elections where the opposition had limited or no influence on the political process.
The report drew rebuke from a government official, while an opposition party leader said it was an accurate reflection on the nation.
“We reject this report. The election commission of this country is independent,” Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told BenarNews, describing the EU statements as “fabricated.”
Not so, said Mahbubur Rahman, a member of opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s (BNP) steering committee. The BNP and faith-based Jamaat-e-Islami were singled out in the report as being targeted by Hasina’s Awami League party.
“The EU report reflects the real situation of this country. I agree with this report,” he told BenarNews.
“Free and fair elections are very important for the democratic process, and a neutral and non-partisan election commission is the pre-condition to ensure free and fair elections,” Mahbubur said.
The EU report pointed out that Jamaat had seen its leaders executed for crimes linked to the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan and its younger leaders arrested in government crackdowns.
The statement follows a global intelligence agency’s report in May 2016 that Bangladesh is descending toward single-party authoritarianism as the ruling Awami League pushes charges against the opposition to solidify its own power.
The Stratfor report said that Hasina has employed tactics to marginalize BNP leader Khaleda Zia, a former prime minister.
The Supreme Court in 2013 banned Jamaat from participating in elections, claiming its charter was illegal. While not a major force in the parliamentary election, its organizational abilities helped BNP attract voters, according to Stratfor.
BNP boycotted the 2014 elections, leading Hasina’s coalition to control 280 of parliament’s 300 seats.
Hasina formed the International War Crimes Tribunal that has resulted in the executions of at least six opposition leaders for alleged crimes committed during the 1971 war.
The government has also filed charges against Zia and other BNP leaders, along with media members, Stratfor reported.
Last week, a court in Comilla district issued an arrest warrant for Zia, who has been in London since July for medical reasons, over a two-year-old arson case. The warrant followed a two-week roundup of almost three dozen members of the Jamaat party.
Zia and dozens of others were charged over an arson attack that killed eight people in February 2015 when a man threw a Molotov cocktail at a bus. The opposition leader also faces a sedition charge after she issued a comment questioning the official report about the number of Bangladeshis killed during the 1971 war.
“There was controversy over the number of the martyrs killed in the war of liberation; different books and documents refer to various figures,” Zia was quoted as saying.
Additionally, 33 Jamaat leaders were arrested, including the acting leader, Mokbul Ahmad, in a series of raids in six districts across the country.
A Dhaka-based human rights group said more than 320 people, including opposition party members, suspected criminals and militants, have been unlawfully detained or disappeared since Hasina took power after the 2009 election.
Meanwhile, professor Nizam Uddin Ahmed, a political commentator and researcher, said Bangladesh faces political challenges.
“As the EU always produces reports based on authentic data and facts, we can take this report as authentic,” he told BenarNews. “But there are some challenges to form a neutral and nonpartisan election commission.”
As political divisions and intolerance spiked in Bangladesh, he said, it has become difficult to form a neutral panel.
“It is true that an independent and neutral election commission is the pre-condition for democracy,” he said.