Bangladesh Summons Western Envoys for Condemning Assault on Polls Candidate

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Bangladesh’s foreign ministry warned Western countries on Wednesday to not engage in “undiplomatic behavior” through public criticism ahead of national polls, after officials met with ambassadors from 13 countries who had collectively condemned an assault on an independent candidate.

The government hit back as it faces growing international scrutiny over the climate for free speech as well as free and fair polls in the run-up to the next general election, which is due in December or January. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party are looking to extend their uninterrupted rule over the South Asian nation since 2009.  

During Wednesday’s meeting at a government guest house with the envoys from the United States, United Kingdom, France and other countries, Md. Shahriar Alam, the state minister for foreign affairs, said he handed them a letter of protest over their joint statement issued last week.

“This noon, we invited the 13 ambassadors who in violation of all diplomatic rules and norms issued a joint statement on the independent candidate of the Dhaka-17 by-election, Ashraful Alam. We have expressed our displeasure at their behavior beyond diplomatic norms,” he told reporters. 

The other ambassadors who attended the meeting represented Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the European Union.

An independent candidate, Ashraful Alam (also known as Hero Alom), was allegedly assaulted by a group of men at a polling center in the Dhaka area during a by-election for a parliamentary seat in that constituency. The victim, a YouTuber known for commenting on social issues in the country, was challenging an incumbent with the Awami League.

Two days later, the ambassadors issued their joint statement, which bluntly said that “violence has no place in the democratic process.”

“We call for a full investigation and accountability for the perpetrators. Everyone involved in the upcoming elections should ensure that they are free, fair, and peaceful,” the statement said. 

Wednesday’s meeting took place two months after the U.S. government announced a visa ban for individuals believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh. 

Shahriar Alam, the foreign ministry official, said the 1961 Vienna Convention of Diplomatic Relations prevents diplomats from interfering in the internal affairs of the host countries.

“Before the issuance of the joint statement on July 19, the government arrested two people for the attack and the media published it on July 18. But the diplomats called for taking legal action which was uncalled for and unnecessary,” he said.

Shahriar Alam accused the diplomats of not valuing the prompt action of the government.

“So, the question remains about the objectivity and intentions of the joint statement,” he said.

Following the meeting, the congregation of diplomats did not speak to reporters outside the venue.

The state minister said the ambassadors “defended their action and said the statement was aimed at strengthening Bangladesh’s democratic system.”

“But we are not convinced by their explanation. We have reminded them that they should follow the Vienna Convention, and not repeat such practice,” Shahriar Alam said without elaborating who defended the joint statement at the meeting.

The U.S. Embassy in Dhaka did respond to a BenarNews request for comment.

“As we have said many times, we support Bangladesh’s goal of holding free, fair and peaceful elections. To that end, we joined with other foreign missions to condemn the violence against Hero Alom and to call for a full investigation and bring the perpetrators to account,” spokesman Bryan Schiller said.

“We note that a number of arrests have been made in the case. Such violence has no place in the democratic process.” 

Opposition speaks out

The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) said the ruling Awami League was challenging Western diplomats over the visa ban.

On Wednesday, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, BNP’s secretary-general, questioned why the government had summoned the diplomats after they spoke out in favor of a healthy democratic system in Bangladesh.

“The Awami League government and the subservient Election Commission had arranged two sham elections in Bangladesh. They are going to hold the next general elections in rigged ways. The government condemned the U.S. and other western countries as they have been calling for holding the next elections in an impartial way,” he told BenarNews.

“There is no democratic system and no atmosphere for holding fair elections in Bangladesh. I think the Western diplomats, through issuing the statement on the attack on Hero Alom, have played their role in restoring the democratic system in Bangladesh,” he said.

The BNP and its supporters have been staging huge anti-government protests lately to demand that Hasina’s government step aside to make way for a neutral caretaker government ahead of the election, but the Awami League has refused to budge on this.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, a prominent Bangladeshi photographer and press freedom activist delivered a virtual lecture to the Wilson Center, a Washington think-tank, headlined “To Speak or not to Speak: Rights and Democracy in Bangladesh.”

“Critical thinking is illegal in the country,” said Shahidul Alam, who was incarcerated for more than 100 days in 2018 after speaking out about student-led protests over road safety.

There is no level playing field in Bangladesh for elections, he said.

The ruling party is not expected to establish a caretaker government ahead of the vote, he noted, adding that the Awami League is aware that it likely would lose power under a caretaker election.

“And that is the reason they don’t want an election-time neutral caretaker government. Because they want to be in power forever,” he told those attending the online lecture.

“Public votes no longer matter to return to power” for the ruling party to return to power since they took “control of all sectors,” he said. “Millions of voters never got a chance to vote in the last 15 years.”

Source: Benar News