Shot and beaten to death: Bangladesh election day turns deadly
- Sixteen people killed in clashes with police and supporters of rival parties, despite 600,000 security forces deployed to keep order
- Local independent news channel has been taken off the air, with the government insisting technical problems, but the company disputing it
At least 16 people were killed in election day clashes in Bangladesh on Sunday before polls closed at 4pm local time. The vote came after a bloody campaign overshadowed by a crackdown on the opposition by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who was expected to win a historic but controversial fourth term.
Early results showed Hasina was heading for a landslide victory, local media said. The incumbent raced into a clear lead, quickly securing 19 seats against zero for the opposition, according to Channel 24, which is compiling results from around the country.
Bangladesh’s Election Commission, meanwhile, is investigating allegations of vote rigging and said it would act if rigging was confirmed. At least three voters in southeast Bangladesh, including a journalist, said they were barred from entering polling booths or were told their ballot papers had already been filled in.
“Allegations are coming from across the country and those are under investigation,” commission spokesman S.M. Asaduzzaman said. “If we get any confirmation from our own channels then measures will be taken as per rules.”
The leader of Bangladesh’s opposition alliance described Sunday’s general election as “farcical”, saying any outcome would be rejected and demanding that a new vote be held.
“We call upon the election commission to declare this farcical election void and demand a fresh election under a neutral government,” said Kamal Hossain, who coordinates an alliance of opposition parties that was hoping to unseat Hasina.
Three men were shot by police while six others died in clashes between activists from the ruling Awami League Party and opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), police said.
An auxiliary police member was killed after being attacked by opposition activists armed with guns and sticks, according to officials.
Bangladesh’s leader has been lauded for boosting economic growth in the poor Asian nation during an unbroken decade in power and for welcoming Rohingya refugees fleeing a military crackdown in neighbouring Myanmar.
But critics accuse her of authoritarianism and crippling the opposition – including arch-rival Khaleda Zia who is serving 17 years in prison on corruption charges – to cling on to power.
The election campaign was marred by violence between supporters of Hasina’s Awami League and Zia’s BNP.
Voting was being held under tight security. Some 600,000 security personnel were deployed across the South Asian country, including at 40,000 polling stations.
Authorities ordered mobile operators to shut down 3G and 4G services until midnight on Sunday “to prevent the spread of rumours” that could trigger unrest.
The Associated Press received more than 50 calls from people across the country who identified themselves as opposition supporters complaining of intimidation and threats, and being forced to vote in front of ruling party men inside polling booths.
“Some stray incidents have happened. We have asked our officials to deal with them,” K.M. Nurul Huda, Bangladesh’s chief election commissioner, said as he cast his vote in Dhaka.
Police said they acted “in self-defence” in the southern town of Bashkhali, when they opened fire on opposition supporters who attempted to storm a polling booth, killing one.
In a separate incident another man was shot by police after he tried to steal a ballot box.
The private Jamuna TV news channel said on Sunday it was taken off the air late on Saturday.
“Cable operators took Jamuna TV off air without giving us any explanation,” said Fahim Ahmed, the station’s chief news editor. “We are still transmitting. But no one in Bangladesh can see our channel due to the blackout.”
The channel’s output could still be seen online.
The broadcaster, which is owned by Jamuna Group – one of Bangladesh’s biggest conglomerates that also runs a newspaper – is known for its independent coverage.
Salma Islam, a member of the family that owns the group, stood in Sunday’s election as an independent candidate against an influential ruling party businessman.
A top cable operator in Dhaka insisted Jamuna broadcasts stopped for technical rather than political reasons.
“We are not getting their signal,” said S.M. Ali Chanchal, owner of cable operator
Jamuna rejected the explanation and insisted its signals were being broadcast normally.
Opinion polls show Hasina, who has presided over 6 per cent GDP expansion every year since she won a landslide in 2008, heading for a comfortable victory that would extend her reign as the country’s longest-serving leader.
She needs 151 seats in the first-past-the-post system to control the 300-seat parliament but experts say a victory would be sullied by accusations that she hamstrung her opponents’ campaign and scared people into voting for her.
The opposition says more than 15,000 of its activists have been detained during the weeks-long campaign, crushing its ability to mobilise grass roots support.
“We are getting disturbing reports outside Dhaka that overnight votes have been cast illegally,” said Kamal Hossain, the 82-year-old architect of Bangladesh’s constitution who is helming the opposition coalition.
Presiding officers at polling stations across Dhaka reported a low turnout in morning voting.
Human Rights Watch and other international groups have decried the crackdown, saying it has created a climate of fear which could prevent opposition supporters from casting ballots.
The United States has raised concerns about the credibility of the Muslim-majority country’s election while the United Nations called for greater efforts to make the vote fair.
Seventeen opposition candidates have been arrested over what they claim are trumped-up charges while another 17 were disqualified from running by courts, which Hasina’s opponents say are government controlled.
“This is not [a] free and fair election. It is more a controlled selection,” said a Western diplomat who asked not to be named.
The Bangladeshi leadership has alternated between Hasina and Zia, allies-turned-foes, over the last three decades.
Hasina rejects accusations of creeping authoritarianism but analysts say she mounted the clampdown over fears that young voters were set to hand a victory to the BNP.
Her government was criticised this year for its heavy handling of weeks of massive student protests over the abolition of job quotas and poor safety standards on Bangladesh’s dangerous roads.
Hasina, the daughter of Bangladesh’s first president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was gifted victory in the 2014 election when the BNP boycotted the vote claiming it wasn’t free or fair.
Since then, rights groups have accused her administration of stifling freedom of speech through the toughening of a draconian anti-press law and the enforced disappearance of government dissenters.
Additional reporting by Associated Press, Reuters, The Guardian