Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has called for steps to be taken against an official in her party who threatened to physically assault Peter Haas, the U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh.
The official justified his words by claiming that Haas was working in the interest of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, or BNP, ahead of elections scheduled for early January.
While it was not disclosed exactly what action has been ordered, Bangladesh’s junior foreign affairs minister, Shahriar Alam, confirmed in front of local reporters in Dhaka on Friday that the prime minister has directed action against the official.
In a video clip that went viral on social media last week, Mujibul Haque Chowdhury, chairman of a unit of Hasina’s Awami League in a Chittagong subdivision, was seen hurling threats and insults at the American ambassador at a political meeting on November 6.
“Peter Haas said he wants to see a free and fair election here. I say, ‘Peter Haas, you are as knowledgeable as a newborn, while we are the actual grown-ups,’” Chowdhury said in the video. “You have no idea what we are capable of. You will know just how dangerous we are once we bash you up.”
Chowdhury added: “To the BNP members, you are a god, a savior. But we are not scared of you. You cannot harm us in any way.”
As the video spread on social media, Hasina directed her party colleagues to discipline Choudhury at an AL Central Committee meeting Thursday.
Obaidul Quader, the general secretary of her party, acknowledged afterward that Chowdhury’s comments about the ambassador were abusive.
“Peter Haas, as an ambassador, is a respectable person. Mujibul Haque Chowdhury’s comment, as it surfaced in the media, is rude and indecent. We will take disciplinary action against him for his misconduct,” Quader said in a press briefing.
US seeking free and fair election
The 2014 general elections in Bangladesh were boycotted by the BNP. The next general elections, in 2018, were marred by allegations of massive vote stuffing by the AL.
Since 2022, the United States and other countries have been urging the Hasina government to hold the next general election, set for January 7, in a free and fair manner.
In September, the U.S. government announced that it had started “taking steps to impose visa restrictions” on Bangladeshi individuals who are found complicit in “undermining the democratic electoral process” in Bangladesh.
During a visit to the U.S. in September, Hasina said at a New York press conference that every time her party has come to power, it was through a fair democratic process. “We indeed want the next general elections to be free and fair,” she said.
However, the BNP, the largest opposition party in Bangladesh, insists that the general election will not be free and fair if it is held under the Hasina government, and has said it will not participate unless a nonpartisan caretaker government is installed for the election period.
In recent weeks, Haas has met several Bangladeshi government officials, ruling party leaders and the election commissioners. He reportedly conveyed a message from the U.S. government that it seriously wants the next general election in Bangladesh to be free and fair.
Over the past weeks, several leaders of the AL and its various wings and allies have expressed irritation, directly and indirectly alleging that Haas is working in support of the BNP.
“How will Peter Hass help you [the BNP]? Will he impose visa restrictions, sanctions? We have already had talks with his superiors in the U.S. Everything has been settled, and we are going to hold the elections following our plan,” Quader, the party general secretary, said last month.
“We will not allow you to carry out violent activities and disrupt elections by using Peter Haas,” Quader said.
Calls for ambassador to be replaced
Last week, Hasanul Haq Inu, a former minister and political ally of the AL, called for the removal of Haas from Bangladesh.
U.S. President “Joe Biden’s representative Peter Haas, who is the ‘newly appointed adviser of BNP,’ is acting in support of the BNP by supporting the killing of a policeman,” Inu said in a speech. He was referring to the death of a policeman during an outbreak of violence at a BNP rally in Dhaka on October 28.
“Peter Haas is the supporter of the BNP, the killer of the policeman. He does not deserve to continue as the ambassador of the friendly nation of America,” Inu said.
“I call on the Bangladesh government to declare Peter Haas persona non grata, for indulging in undiplomatic activities, interfering in Bangladesh’s internal politics and supporting the dastardly killing of a policeman. The government should tell its U.S. counterpart to replace him with a new ambassador immediately.”
Haas has denied any U.S. interest in who wins the election. “I want to make one thing very clear,” he said in September. “That the U.S. does not support any political party. What we do want is a free and fair election in accordance with international standards so that people of Bangladesh can freely choose their own government.”
Attack on ambassador “deeply disturbing”
Ali Riaz, professor of political science at Illinois State University, said that while any individual has the right to criticize the policies of any government, a “personal attack on the envoy of that country is deeply disturbing.”
“The ruling party leaders and activists are angry with the U.S. because they see the current U.S. policy towards Bangladesh as an obstacle to holding an election according to their plan. Their anger is both spontaneous and orchestrated,” Riaz told VOA.
“Those who are beneficiaries of the present system are spontaneously angry in fear of losing these benefits,” he said. “Others are motivated by [suspicions] that the U.S. has a regime change agenda. They think that the U.S. is out to get its leaders and trying to depose the Hasina government.”
Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman of the Capital Punishment Justice Project, who has been documenting human rights abuses in Bangladesh for over a decade, said that Haas has “become a target of the regime” for being the most prominent foreign diplomat “supporting people’s aspirations for democratization and human rights” in Bangladesh.
He noted that former U.S. Ambassador Marcia Bernicat escaped an attack in Dhaka a few months ahead of the 2018 general elections. Police subsequently identified many of the assailants as leaders and activists of the AL and its student wing, Chhatra League.
On Friday, the U.S. State Department told VOA it has raised Chowdhury’s remarks at the highest levels of the Bangladesh government in Dhaka as well as with the Bangladesh Embassy in Washington.
“The safety and security of our diplomatic personnel and facilities are of the utmost importance. While we don’t comment on specific information regarding our security posture, the Diplomatic Security Service has a robust security program at each post tailored to each mission’s specific needs,” a State Department spokesperson wrote in an exchange of emails.
“Given the charged political atmosphere in Bangladesh, we expect that the government of Bangladesh will take all appropriate measures to maintain the safety and security of all U.S. missions and personnel in the country, per its obligations under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic relations.”