(This January 27 story was corrected to clarify in paragraph 16 that the IRI was accredited to observe the election, but did not do so.)
By Zeba Siddiqui and Ruma Paul
DHAKA (Reuters) - A top official at an observer group that monitored Bangladesh’s election, as well as one of its foreign volunteers, have said they regretted participating.
The election led to an overwhelming victory and a third successive term For Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her ruling alliance, though western governments, including the United States, have called for reports of irregularities at the polls to be investigated.
The president of the SAARC Human Rights Foundation told Reuters he now believed there should be a fresh vote after hearing first hand accounts from voters and some officials presiding over polling booths that activists from Hasina’s Awami League stuffed ballot boxes the night before the poll and intimidated voters. Reuters was not able to independently verify those accounts.
“Now I have come to know everything, and can say that the election was not free and fair,” said Mohammad Abdus Salam, a 75-year-old former high court division justice.
After Reuters published this story, the SAARC Human Rights Foundation issued a statement saying Salam had been misquoted. It quoted him as saying he told the reporters that “people in the mosque were saying the elections weren’t conducted properly”, but that he did not feel able to offer an opinion because he had not been an observer himself.
“I have responsibly and judiciously discharged my duties,” the statement quoted Salam as saying. “This incorrect news has hurt my prestige and standing, and I am distressed.”
Contacted again by Reuters, Salam declined to comment further.
A Canadian observer who was brought in by the foundation, Tanya Foster, also told Reuters she regretted her involvement. But in a subsequent email and letter she said the regret concerned the hostility and harassment she faced from the media and others on her return to Canada and not her actual participation as an observer.
A Reuters spokesman said: “We stand by our reporting on the views expressed by the election monitors.”
Several observers fielded by the foundation said they continued to endorse the vote. Gautam Ghosh, a Kolkata, India-based lawyer, and Hakimullah Muslim and Nazir Miya - members of Nepal’s ruling Communist Party - said they stood by their initial statements that the polls were fair.
“We heard of incidents of violence but never saw anything with our own eyes. We can’t comment on what happened elsewhere,” said Miya. Ghosh said he had never seen such a good election.
Bangladesh, which is an important supplier of clothing to major Western High Street brands and is the second-biggest garments exporter in the world behind China, had already faced criticism from the European Union, United States, and British officials for irregularities observed during the polling.
Transparency International last week said its investigation into the Dec. 30 election found irregularities at 47 of the 50 constituencies surveyed, including fake votes, ballot stuffing, and voters and opposition polling agents barred from entering polling centers. It found the ruling party was alone in actively campaigning at all areas surveyed, sometimes with help from local law enforcement officials and government resources.
The government has dismissed the Transparency International investigation as lacking in credibility. Hasina’s political adviser H.T. Imam called the group “a puppet” of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Imam did not respond to calls seeking further comment on Reuters’ report about the monitors’ misgivings.
The BNP-led alliance has rejected the election, calling it rigged, after the Awami League and its allies swept more than 95 percent of the parliamentary seats. The United States, European Union and Britain have since called for allegations of ballot-rigging and intimidation to be investigated.
Several other international groups were accredited to monitor the voting, according to a Bangladesh Foreign Ministry statement dated Dec. 27, 2018, but not all have commented on it publicly. The Washington-based International Republican Institute (IRI) was accredited as an observer, but said it did not carry out its monitoring mission.
Ahead of the election, the U.S. State Department had expressed disappointment that some U.S.-funded observers had been forced to cancel plans to observe the polls as Bangladesh didn’t issue visas “within the timeframe necessary”. Bangladesh denied delaying visas and said it was following due process.
Political experts said observers were key to establishing the credibility of the poll, which was Bangladesh’s first fully participatory election in a decade. The BNP had boycotted the last vote in 2014.
The SAARC Human Rights Foundation brought in observers from Canada, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, who spoke to the press on election day and the day after, endorsing the fairness of the voting, often in glowing terms.
On New Year’s Eve, hours after being declared the winner of a contest that brought her a third straight term in power, Hasina sat on a white couch at her residence to address an audience of journalists and election observers.
“They voted so enthusiastically, especially women and the young generation,” Hasina said. “By coming to my country, you have also given us good opportunity to show how democracy is working.”
As a microphone was passed around the room, monitors from the SAARC Human Rights Foundation as well as other observers, including those from the Saudi Arabia-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation - which endorsed the poll as fair - congratulated Hasina on the win.
The first to speak was Foster, who called the election “very fair and democratic”. “In Canada I feel that it is a similar type of process,” Foster said, as Hasina smiled back.
Hasina’s son, Sajeeb Wazed, who is the government’s information and communication technology adviser, repeatedly tweeted out statements made by the foundation’s observers calling the election fair and peaceful.
Though the initials and logo it uses closely resemble those of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), an inter-governmental body that is well-known in the region, the Dhaka-based SAARC Human Rights Foundation has no affiliation with that organization.
The foundation’s Secretary General Abed Ali told Reuters the group had applied for approval from SAARC and was expecting it soon. A spokesman for the Kathmandu-based SAARC, though, told Reuters it had never heard of Ali or his group.
Its advisory committee is chaired by a lawmaker from Hasina’s Awami League, and includes a former lawmaker from the Jatiya Party, which has often been allied with the Awami League. A former minister in a previous BNP government is also listed on the panel, but no current opposition members.
Ali said those current and former lawmakers “are just supporting our humanitarian activities”.
“I want to make it clear that we have no affiliation with any political party,” he added.
Awami League lawmaker Obaidul Muqtadir Chowdhury, who is listed on the foundation’s website as chairman of its adviser panel, did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Former Jatiya Party lawmaker Mohammad Ruhul Amin, who stood down at this election and is also a member of the adviser panel, did not respond to calls seeking comment. Party Chairman Anwar Hossain Manju said he had not heard of the foundation.
The secretary of Bangladesh’s Election Commission, Helal Uddin Ahmed, said it had no knowledge of links between the SAARC Human Rights Foundation and any political party.
In his original interview with Reuters Salam, the group’s president, said the observers fielded by his organization had only monitored a few polling stations, so were in no position to make a clear assessment of the election’s fairness. He said he was not directly involved in organizing the poll observers.
He said some presiding officers had told him they had been forced to stuff ballot boxes. “I want to speak the truth,” he told Reuters at the headquarters of the foundation, a dusty two-room ground floor apartment in the industrial town of Mirpur on the outskirts of Dhaka. “I am not doing this for any political gain.”
He did not identify the presiding officers, who he said spoke to him in confidence because they felt guilty at participating. Reuters could not independently verify the accusations.
Ali dismissed the president’s comments, saying: “Can you write something just based on someone saying something?”
Foster, a policy analyst in the Saskatchewan provincial government, told Reuters she had heard from Bangladeshis in Canada that a group known as the SAARC Human Rights Foundation was looking for foreign election monitors.
“I asked about the qualifications because I thought it would be an interesting experience. I applied to SAARC and to the Election Commission and they vetted me and offered me an invitation to be an observer,” said Foster, whose daughter, Chloe Foster, also joined the observer’s panel.
They had never acted as international observers to a national election before.
In hindsight, she said “I don’t feel great about it. I feel like I was too naïve”.
“I don’t know that our reports are of that much value, considering we only visited nine polling centers and only in Dhaka,” she added. “We didn’t go to the more hostile areas. We didn’t audit the election commission or conduct background checks of the presiding officers or poll agents.”
In her subsequent email and letter to Reuters, Foster said that she stands by her comments on election day: that she didn’t witness any election irregularities. She also said she had left Bangladesh “feeling good about the role I had played in upholding democracy”.
Foster said her regrets concerned the pressure she faced from journalists and others on her return to Canada. “I had dozens of people harassing me about what I knew and didn’t know,” she said, adding that these people even contacted her government employer, putting her in a tenuous position at work.
Chloe Foster was not available for comment.
Ali, the foundation’s secretary general, said the women had experience monitoring elections in Canada. He said it was not possible for any group to monitor all polling stations.
Additional reporting by Serajul Quadir in DHAKA and Gopal Sharma in KATHMANDU; Editing by Martin Howell and Alex Richardson