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BANGLADESH: New government must prioritise human rights

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bdesh_polls.jpgBangladeshis went to the polls on 29 December 2008, in a landmark parliamentary election which signified the end of two years of emergency rule by a military-backed caretaker government. Read the commentary on the elections by FORUM-ASIA.

Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina won in a landslide victory in an election marked by a high voter turnout, in the country's first parliamentary elections in seven years.
The moderate socialist Awami League grand alliance won 263 of the 300 total seats in the legislature, defeating its main opposition, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and its leader Khaleda Zia. Over 70% of eligible voters turned out for the polls.
Thousands of external election monitors were present in Bangladesh in the weeks leading up to the election, including FORUM-ASIA's election monitoring team of experts from South Asian human rights organizations.

Despite the BNP's contention that the election was rigged, election monitors, in large part, endorsed the election results and found the process to be credible. The European Union election monitoring team said in a statement that "Minor technical difficulties aside, professionalism, transparency and credibility were the hallmarks of this election." The observers did not notice patterns of fraud in the election process.
In the months leading up to the election, the Bangladesh Election Commission instituted extensive and stringent new election rules in an update on the Representation of the People's Order of 1972, issued in November 2008.

The new election rules gave sweeping powers to the election commission to investigate and reject the candidature of anyone violating election law, and oversaw the election under a 'relaxed' state of emergency. The election commission also purged 11 million fraudulent names from the electoral rolls, and registered voters with their photographs.
While many sources cite these as one of the first fair and credible elections in Bangladesh's history, it is only the first step in creating a healthy and full democracy.

The next few months are key to the establishment of inclusive and democratic parliamentary practices among various political parties, and addressing the issue of government corruption. Leaders of both major parties, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, were jailed on corruption charges one year ago by the military government in an attempt to curtail fraud, and were released to contest the elections.

The new government also has a clear responsibility to make human rights a priority and rescind legislative decisions made by the military caretaker government. During two years of state of emergency, the military caretaker government put numerous emergency laws into place, which targeted the opposition and civil society actors. The Emergency Powers Ordinance and Rules introduced extensive restrictions on safeguards on arrest and detention as well as providing a speedier trial procedure in special court, with major incursions on due process rights in practice.
The ordinance led to mass arrests.

Odhikar, FORUM-ASIA's member organisation in Bangladesh, reported over 50,000 people arrested in the month of May 2008. While some laws were purportedly being used to detain political leaders and other top figures, all of whom have until now enjoyed blanket immunity for their illegal activities, the same laws were denying justice to innocent victims who are arbitrarily detained and tortured. The new government has a mandate and obligation to address these limitations on civil liberties and to uphold the democratic rule of law.