The day started high on hopes of a square election. But before long, the optimism was brutishly deflated.
Members of the ruling Awami League’s youth front by and large occupied polling stations — and they were lent a helping hand by police and other law enforcers.
And to cover their tracks, they made sure the journalists’ access to the scene of wrongdoings is restricted.
Take, for instance, the Dhaka College centre. At around 9:00am, about 100 activists of Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) stormed into the near-empty polling centre.
What was essentially a sedate environment was filled with cacophony. Split in groups, they took control of all the six booths of the centre No. 343 and started casting votes at will.
They grabbed the ballot paper books, stamped them with the Hilsa fish symbol of Sayeed Khokon, the Awami League-backed mayoral candidate for Dhaka City South, and stuffed them into the ballot boxes.
They worked through the books as fast as they could, as if they were on a timed mission.
This went on for about 20 minutes, and the presiding officer, Sujit Kumer Dey, looked helpless. After all, the police personnel joined forces with the BCL men.
There was no protest from the polling agents either. How could they be, when all of them were of the Hilsa symbol?
The police personnel on duty asked the correspondent not to stay at the centre for longer than five minutes.
“There is an order from the higher-ups that journalists can stay inside for five minutes only,” Mahmud, the policeman, said.
By 9:20am, the BCL men were out of Dhaka College to take their hooliganism to the next centre. In other words, they repeated the same process at the adjacent centre.
Many voters later told the correspondent that their votes were already cast, while some found their ballot papers were completely missing.
Over at Dhanmondi Government Girls High School at 12:40pm, a polling agent of Nasrin Begum, a candidate for the reserved seat of ward Nos. 14, 15 and 18, was seen filling ballot boxes with voting papers in the presence of an assistant presiding officer at a booth.
When The Daily Star correspondent arrived, the door to one of the polling booths was shut, which is a violation of voting rules. The entry and the exit to polling centres or booths should remain open during the voting hours.
However, the correspondent was still privy to the goings-on inside the room through the window: a middle-aged person was seen folding the ballot papers and passing them on to another man, who was wearing an identity card of the Kettle symbol, for sticking them into the ballot boxes.
The correspondent also snuck in photographs of the whole incident.
The camera flash alerted the men, who, upon learning that a journalist was present, opened the door.
It turns out the middle-aged person was the assistant presiding officer of the centre.
Soon, a plainclothes man, identifying himself as a policeman, approached the correspondent and asked him to leave the venue.
When the correspondent sought to speak to the presiding officer, the man removed him from the centre and took him to a policeman named Jamiul and said: “This person is a journalist and he took photographs. What should I do?”
The duo then asked the correspondent to delete whatever photographs he took.
Police also intercepted two correspondents of The Daily Star when they wanted to enter Mirpur Bangla School and College, which was centre No. 145, at about 9:30am.
After bargaining, they entered but the police did not allow in the accompanying photographer.
Police again intercepted them as they were speaking to the presiding officer, as one of the correspondents was filming the conversation on his mobile phone.
The law enforcer simply ousted the correspondents from the centre. “Our seniors have strictly instructed us not to allow any cameras or filming inside the venue,” he said.
The police personnel, however, failed to show any proof of the instruction when the correspondents asked for one.
One of the correspondents returned to the venue at 2:30pm and saw the polling agent of the Table Clock symbol grabbing a bundle of ballot papers and stamping them in a discreet corner of the booth No. 1.
When the correspondent sought to know the number of votes cast until then, the polling officer told him not to disturb and come again at 3:15pm.
Accordingly, the correspondent returned at 3:45pm but found the booth to be empty.
“All the votes were cast by 3:15pm,” said Assistant Presiding Officer Golam Faruk.
At about 3:50pm, news soon floated that a magistrate was calling in at the centre, and all those present, who happened to be just the BCL men and the polling officers, straight away got busy staging the scenes of a typical polling centre.
In other words, some became dummy agents and voters.
At 1:35pm at Kabi Nazrul Govt College, a group of men, all supporters of Sayeed Khokon, were seen stuffing voting papers into ballot boxes at a booth.
The Daily Star correspondent captured the scene on his mobile phone and the group ran towards him and threatened him to delete the photo. More people arrived and forced the reporter to erase the photo in front of them.
The presence of voters was sparse at the centre, with agents and supporters of Khokon loitering about.
Voting at three centres at Suritola High School was seen suspended when a correspondent of The Daily Star dropped by at 9:30am due to allegations of rigging.
Outside, people were shouting “vote thieves” after finding out that their votes were already cast.
“I came to cast my vote, but somebody has already done it. What is my fault?” said Aslam, a voter from the area.
At about 11:03am, a group of ten men wearing the Hilsa and Top symbols were seen rigging votes at Kamalapur Sher-e-Bangla Railway High School.
As The Daily Star correspondent attempted to photograph the scene, two of them shouted, “Don’t take photos. You will be vanished as soon as you get out of here.”
Over at the Kamalapur BRTC Bus Depot centre for men, police warned three journalists, including one from this newspaper, not to take mobile phones or cameras inside the venue.
“The Election Commission and our bosses instructed us not to allow journalists with mobile phones and cameras,” said an on-duty policeman, who, however, was not wearing his name badge.
Voters returned without casting votes as police locked the Maniknagar Govt Primary School centre at about 12 noon. Its presiding officer, Sohelur Rahman Khan, said there was no atmosphere of voting at the centre.
The Scholastica School centre in Uttara was taken over by local AL leaders and their supporters in the first hour of voting.
Airport Thana AL Senior Vice-president Shahjahan Mondal along with his supporters was seen dictating the entire polling process, as the law enforcers played the role of silent onlookers.
At about 11:00am, supporters of the Hilsa symbol, with batons in hand, chased some voters of their opponent candidate out of Dhaka Nesaria Madrasa in Gendaria.
Later, a voter, Pappu, complained that his vote was already cast. “I could not cast my vote as there was no ballot paper.”
“I was told that my vote has been cast,” a woman said as she was coming out of Badda Girls High School at 1:30pm.
At around 2:00pm, five men of the Table Clock symbol were seen hurriedly stamping ballot papers at Shahjadpur Model Govt Primary School.
When the correspondent entered the booth, they told him not to disturb. “We are working here,” one of them said and pushed the reporter out of the room and bolted it.
The correspondent then approached the group of policemen standing right outside the room. They said the election was going on smoothly, as none of the voters raised any complaint.
Its presiding officer, Jahangir Alam, said “impartial” voting was going on inside.
The reporter then moved to the nearby Badda Govt Primary School, where he saw a group of men sticking ballots into the boxes as quickly as possible.
As soon as they saw the correspondent, three of them weighed in and drove him out of the room.
Police locked the main gate of Shahjadpur Nazar Madrasa centre as 60-70 youths of the Table Clock symbol rigged the votes inside.
At that time, a voter carrying his national identity card attempted to enter the centre but he was not allowed. “I have been here three times since morning and was unsuccessful in casting my vote in all instances.”
In Chittagong, at least 50 people were denied voting rights as AL men already cast them at Patenga Board Government Primary School between 8:00am to 1:00pm, according to The Daily Star correspondents.
BCL men threw stones at the Hossain Ahmedpara Government Primary School centre to take control of the venue to rig votes.
Local AL men and outsiders forcibly entered the centre at Udayan Kindergarten at 9:00am and they barred The Daily Star correspondent from taking photographs.
Pro-government activists blasted crackers outside the polling centre at Government Commercial Institute at 10:10am.
AGENTS USED MOBILES
In a gross violation, the polling agents were seen using their mobile phones at every centre. They were seen constantly talking to each other and coordinating their activities.
For instance, at Dhaka College, the agents of Hilsa symbol communicated with one another inside the booth for updates.
AL-backed Dhaka South City Corporation Mayor Candidate Sayeed Khokon and a number of councillors hired rickshaws to take voters to the polling centres free of charge in yet another gross violation of the code of conduct.
Source: The Daily Star