Tens of thousands of troops deployed across nation in bid to stem political violence ahead of January 5 polls.
Dhaka, Bangladesh – The UK government has refused to release a full copy of a critical report on Bangladesh’s controversial 2014 election, saying to do so would likely “cause significant offence to the government”.
Hundreds were killed in violence by members of law enforcement agencies and opposition groups before, during, and after the votes of January 5, 2014, according to human rights groups.
The 2014 report resulted in the UK’s Department for International Development, the United States government, and the European Union first cutting back financial support earmarked for Bangladesh’s election commission. In July 2015, funds were suspended completely.
The election report was written in March 2014 – two months after the country’s national elections that were boycotted by the main opposition parties. The vote returned the ruling Awami League party to power.
|Violence on eve of Bangladesh elections|
The election boycott resulted in more than half of all parliamentary seats being uncontested.
At the time, the UK Foreign Office Minister Baroness Warsi stated it was “disappointing that voters in more than half the constituencies did not have the opportunity to express their will at the ballot box, and that turnout in most other constituencies was low”.
The UK election report said local observers had found a “significant level of electoral violations” and “ballot stuffing”.
The report, written by an “external expert”, only came to public knowledge after a six-line extract from it was published by the Department for International Development in its annual assessment of the provision of $2.3 million to Bangladesh’s election commission.
The money, funnelled through the United Nations Development Programme, was designed “to put in place the conditions necessary for credible, transparent and inclusive elections, and to support post-election reform initiatives”.
Other international funders had given a further $12.2 million to the UNDP-managed project in support of the election commission, with the European Union having donated $8.8 million and the US $1.4 million.
“Recent electoral processes in Bangladesh have become increasingly problematic with indications of very high levels of fraud and violence,” said the extract of the report published in the UK government’s annual review.
“The ECB [Election Commission of Bangladesh] has not sufficiently addressed problems arising, has not provided for transparency, and has essentially deferred responsibility to returning officers from the executive, thus rendering the institution more akin to a logistical support service.”
Al Jazeera had sought a copy of the full report in May this year in an application under the UK government’s freedom of information laws.
In July, the Department for International Development (DFID) rejected the application, stating the factors in favour of disclosing the report – including the “strong public interest in transparency and accountability” – were outbalanced by the harm to “UK’s ability to respond to international development needs” and “to deliver government policy and to protect and promote UK interests”.
In its response to an appeal against the decision, Helen Kennedy, a member of the department’s Freedom of Information team, stated in a letter that “disclosing the more detailed information contained in the full report would be likely to cause significant offence to the government of Bangladesh”.
She said publication could “harm the trust between DFID [and the UK government, more widely] and the Bangladesh government, and so, reduce the likelihood of open and effective dialogue in future”.
“Such dialogue is absolutely essential to ensuring effective programming and to enable both the governments to respond to the development issues faced in Bangladesh. Disclosure in such circumstances would not be in the public interest.”
Retired Brigadier General Zabed Ali, one of the country’s five election commissioners, told Al Jazeera the published six-line extract of the election report was “politically motivated”.
He pointed out that “friendly countries”, including the UK, did not send any observers to the 2014 election.
“So how did they write their report? … [It] wasn’t a report without any malice behind it, without any motive behind it.”
In relation to the boycotted 2014 elections, the election commissioner said: “I can only ask candidates to come and contest the election, and I can only tell voters to vote for your chosen candidate. I can’t force anyone to come and vote.”
He said whenever there was a complaint about an election, “we are taking action”, pointing to hundreds of cases before the courts.
The country’s Election Working Group – a nonpartisan, 29-member national coalition of civil society organisations – said the elections were “marred by a significant level of electoral fraud and violence”.
“Numerous incidents of ballot stuffing, intimidation, booth capture and violence were reported … [T]he integrity of the overall process was undermined by the scale of violations observed,” the group said.
Bangladesh’s next national elections are not due until 2019.