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Gowher Rizvi Q&A: Bangladesh opposition claims exaggerated | Bangladesh News

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Dhaka, Bangladesh – As Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League (AL) party cruised towards a decisive victory, the opposition alliance dubbed Sunday’s polls “farcical” and called for fresh elections under a non-partisan government.

The government has been accused of rigging the vote and intimidating opposition candidates and supporters in lead up to the polls. At least 17 people were killed on Sunday during voting.

On the eve of the elections, Al Jazeera spoke to Gowher Rizvi, international affairs adviser to AL leader and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, on a range of issues, including opposition allegations of intimidation, the banning of the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami party and the government’s economic record.

Al Jazeera: The opposition has alleged that their supporters and candidates have been intimidated and prevented from campaigning freely. What is your response to that?

Gowher Rizvi: It’s a serious allegation. It’s quite widespread feeling among the opposition groups that there are restrictions on their movements and that there are police arrests etc.

Lot of these things are being exaggerated. It’s despicable, it’s really worrying that there is violence. But if you look at the last seven days, seven people have been killed and all of them were from Awami League. This is real violence, people have lost their lives.

Final word to you, I am really glad you are here on the ground, investigate and find out the veracity of any of these stories. Yes, there are some isolated incidents, I have no doubts, it has happened in the past, it’s happening now. But do not accept it without corroboration.

Al Jazeera: Why has Jamaat-e-Islami been banned?

Rizvi: Jamaat-e-Islami has not been banned by the government. Every party has its own constitution and manifesto. Jamaat rejects the secular, liberal democratic constitution of Bangladesh and wants to replace it with a theocratic Islamic state.

It is for this reason, because its constitution is in confrontation with the constitution, the election commission has refused its registration.

As many as 40 Jamaat leaders are contesting in the elections as part of BNP or independents. Government has not banned them and will not ban them.

Al Jazeera: Why are the opposition’s campaign posters missing from the streets?

Rizvi: We are running on a record of 10 years of rapid economic development. Enormous prosperity has been achieved in every social and economic indicator. We are contesting on that record and we have also offered an exciting manifesto for the next five years.

I would ask you to pose questions to leaders of the opposition; what is their manifesto, on what manifesto are they seeking elections that people will get excited about apart from saying ‘throw out a very successful government’, which has not only preserved political stability but also promoted economic development.

We did everything possible to make this a competitive and inclusive election, but the opposition joined the electoral race so late. Our prime minister went out of the way to bring them in the election process.

In the last four years, they did very little by way of campaigning, developing their party or building manifesto. And they created uncertainty among their own party members by constantly threatening to boycott the election. They did not enter the election seriously until a month ago or six weeks ago. But they kept the threat of boycotting alive.
 
So, in this uncertainty, how do you think the party workers are going to campaign?

It wasn’t until Dr Kamal Hossain’s initiatives they came around and said that they will participate.

Al Jazeera: Why didn’t the Awami League agree to a caretaker government as the opposition demanded?
 
Rizvi: The Supreme Court gave a clear-cut verdict that caretaker government is illegal and undemocratic. The Supreme Court said that it is undemocratic because a caretaker government is made up of people not elected by voters, therefore, has no legitimacy in a democratic country.

How does the BNP expect that something that has been declared by the Supreme Court as illegal and undemocratic could be reinstated?
 
You also have to remember that the last caretaker government stayed on for two years instead of three months. And did so illegally.

They arrested the BNP leaders as well as Awami League leader. How can anyone talk about caretaker government with any credibility?
 
In India, elections are conducted by an election commission. Have you actually given proof that the Election Commission is not functioning impartially? Repeating the same lies, again and again, does not make it the truth.
 
Al Jazeera: What has your party done to narrow the political divide in Bangladesh?

Rizvi: The first thing about democracy is that a political party does not have the option of boycotting an election. If the BNP’s criticism [about the 2014 election] was that the election was going to be unfair, it was going to be rigged, voters will not be allowed to participate freely, then they should have gone into the election and demonstrated to the public that this election wasn’t indeed fair.

Instead of doing that, they boycotted it. As it happened, there was no rigging in the election. So, the entire premise that it would be a rigged election, they could not prove. What else can the government do?
 
Let’s forget 2014. Let’s go to 2008, which was held under a military-backed caretaker government, about which the BNP did not complain. They participated in the election. They won a handsome number of seats. But did they actually participate in the parliament?

They boycotted most of the sessions of the parliament. They would turn up every 90th day so that their membership was not cancelled. That is not democracy.
 
Should we have forced them to come to the session? Government has a lot of responsibilities. But if the BNP chooses to boycott of its own free volition, what can the government do?
 
Al Jazeera: Your party has pushed the narrative of economic growth and development. Do the voters buy it?
 
Rizvi: We have reduced the level of poverty down to 22-23 percent. The absolute poverty according to the World Bank definition has been reduced by about 10 percent.

Bangladesh is the only country in the world with comparable low per capita income with a universal basic medical healthcare. These are the ways you eliminate poverty.

We are providing free textbooks to all students up to class 12.

We are producing 350 million textbooks so that no child is deprived of education.
 
The last thing that eradicates inequality is building up power and infrastructure. Because we have invested in power and infrastructure, farmers from remote areas in Bangladesh can send their garden produce to Dhaka and other big metropolises.
 
Given the fact that resource is actually transferring from the urban area to the rural area, and this is a very special characteristic of this government.
 
Al Jazeera: Why has the government dithered on the demand to increase the minimum wage for garment workers?
 
Rizvi: When our government came to power in 2008 the average wage of a garment worker was 1,600 taka ($19). Today, even though I will agree that it is still low, it is 8,000 taka ($96). This means it has increased five-fold. And this has been done largely at the intervention of the government.
 
We would like to pay our workers better, but we also have to make sure that in the process we don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. If we push the price too quickly without comparative increase in productivity, our garment industry will become uncompetitive.
 
I agree that it should be higher, but our record of increasing it five-fold should be applauded and the government should not be blamed.

Al Jazeera: The AL government has been accused of muzzling press freedom. What’s your response?
 
Rizvi: Print media has been under a legal framework. Digital media grew up without any control whatsoever. The Digital Security Act was an attempt to bring digital media under the same sort of law and accountability as the print media.
 
The main concern of the government was not to curb the people’s freedom of expression, but [to control] the use of media to incite violence.
 
We have had sectarian violence incited by false reporting and photoshopping [images]. And civilians have been killed. Entire villages in Chittagong Hill Tract and elsewhere were burned down, which government had to rebuild for them.

This was because of posting doctored photographs of supposedly insulting the prophet.
 
Government has a responsibility to protect the lives of the citizens. Today in [neighbouring] India, numerous incidents are taking place where internet is being used to fan up communal and sectarian violence. Doesn’t the government have a responsibility?
 
If there are clauses that give undue power to the police or which impinge on freedom of expression, I’m sure when the parliament comes up next after the election, we can change the laws. If we are convinced that this is problematic, then we will change the law, there is no doubt about that.

Al Jazeera: If the opposition contests the results, can you guarantee a free and open investigation?

Rizvi: International observers and international media are here, we look forward to your reports.

Much more important, it is voters who decide whether the outcome of the election reflects their preference. Ultimately it will be the verdict of the voters and whatever is the verdict we will respect as a democratic party.
 
Al Jazeera: Bangladesh hosts nearly one million Rohingya refugees, but activists have criticised Dhaka for signing a repatriation deal with Myanmar – one that is cloaked in secrecy.
 
Rizvi: We have not struck any deals with Myanmar. An agreement was signed, which was basically to agree about the repatriation of Rohingya back to Myanmar.
 
Bangladesh, a densely populated country with its own economic stresses, has been hosting close to a million refugees, the like of which has not been done by any other country.

And then to accuse Bangladesh of hiding facts is not acceptable.
 
We made it clear from the very start that we will not do forcible repatriation. We demanded that the condition in Myanmar is made safe so they can return. We also demanded that international organisations be present in Myanmar to ensure that there is no repetition of genocide and human rights violations.
 
We have had the refugees for more than a year and we have not sent back one Rohingya. It is a responsibility of Myanmar to implement the Kofi Annan Commission report, which it itself instituted.

So, please take this criticism to Naypyidaw [Myanmar’s capital] and to the world community and ask them why they are not doing enough.





The elections, seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s rule, are taking place amid reports of deadly violence [Mahmud Hossain Opu/Al Jazeera]

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Ottawa transit commission hopes to prioritize COVID-19 vaccines for OC Transpo workers

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Ottawa’s transit commission is pushing local and provincial health officials to recognize the role OC Transpo operators have played in keeping the city running during the COVID-19 pandemic, hoping to bump train and bus drivers in the vaccination queue amid a recent surge in coronavirus infections affecting transit workers.

More than 100 OC Transpo staff across the entire organization have tested positive for the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, according to an update at Wednesday morning’s transit commission meeting.

Of those cases, 26 employees are currently recovering from the disease in self-isolation.

OC Transpo has seen a recent jump in COVID-19 cases, with Ottawa city council receiving reports of eight operators testing positive for the virus over a recent eight-day period.

Transit commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert attempted to find out how many of the total cases are traced to workplace transmission, but OC Transpo boss John Manconi said he’s been advised by medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches that he can’t share that information for privacy reasons.

Transit operators are listed in the second priority group of essential workers as part of Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine sequencing plans, but several commissioners speaking Wednesday wanted to get the city’s bus and train drivers bumped higher in the order.

Councillors Riley Brockington and Glen Gower both put forward motions looking to get front-line OC Transpo employees prioritization in vaccine sequencing, but others pointed out that the much-debated public health topic of who gets the vaccine and when is well beyond the scope of the transit commission.

“We are not in a position in transit commission to be decreeing, or making an edict, about what group of essential workers is more at risk than others and should be prioritized. That should be left up to public health experts,” Wright-Gilbert said.

Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Keith Egli, who also chairs the Ottawa Board of Health, reflected on the board’s four-plus-hour meeting on Monday evening, during which vaccine sequencing and prioritizing essential workers dominated the conversation.

“Vaccine sequencing is obviously a very difficult maze to get through,” he said.

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COVID-19: Ottawa police announce end of 24-7 presence at Ontario-Quebec border

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Less than two days after the Ontario government’s latest COVID-19 restrictions came into effect, calling for non-essential traffic to be stopped at the province’s borders with Quebec and Manitoba, the Ottawa Police Service has announced it is stopping its 24-hour checkpoints.

According to a statement issued by the service Tuesday evening, the around-the-clock border checkpoints were set to end as of 8 p.m. on Tuesday in favour of rotating checkpoints across the city throughout the day until Ontario’s temporary regulations end.

“Since the onset of the border operations, the OPS has been working closely with Ottawa Public Health (OPH) along with local stakeholders and interprovincial stakeholders (the City of Ottawa, the City of Gatineau, the Ontario Provincial Police etc.) to assess any local public health, traffic and safety impacts. The assessment resulted in today’s operational changes,” the statement said.

“The operational changes announced today are designed to better ensure the health and safety of all, to minimize delays and/or hazards for travellers and to ensure essential workers can get to their places of employment on time.”

The statement also said the police service, while working to comply with the provincial order, was focused on education and enforcement actions that “support improved public health outcomes and respect the concerns of our most marginalized and racialized communities”

Officers said they will be conducting daily assessments on border crossings and that there could be further changes.

In a statement to Global News, a spokesperson for Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said that the border closures are ultimately subject to the discretion of local police enforcing the regulations.

“Local police services are best positioned to determine the operational deployments necessary to ensure the continued safety of their communities,” the spokesperson said, noting that the order’s regulations still apply to individuals entering the province.

The temporary order restricts Quebec residents from entering Ontario. If prompted, individuals must stop when directed by an enforcement officials and provide their reason for entering the province.

The main exemptions to the restrictions include if the person’s main home is in the province, if they work in Ontario, if they’re transporting goods, if they’re exercising Indigenous or treaty rights, if they need health care or if there’s a basis on compassionate grounds.

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COVID-19 vaccines in Ottawa: Nearly half of all residents in their 60s have at least one dose

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OTTAWA — Ottawa Public Health’s latest COVID-19 vaccination update shows that nearly half of all residents 60 to 69 years old have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, a figure that has all but doubled in the past week.

OPH’s COVID-19 vaccination dashboard shows 58,000 residents 60 to 69 have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, accounting for 49.3 per cent of that age group’s population in Ottawa. Last Wednesday, OPH reported 30,000 residents 60 to 69 had had at least one dose, which was 25.4 per cent.

As age demographics get younger, the population grows larger and the coverage by percentage may appear to grow more slowly, even if clinics are vaccinating greater numbers of people. For example, the latest figures show that 83 per cent of people aged 70 to 79 have had at least one dose. By raw population that’s 60,000 people, only slightly higher than half of all people in their 60s.

Vaccinations are open through the Ontario portal to anyone 60 and older and, this week, the AstraZeneca vaccine was approved for administration at pharmacies and primary care clinics to anyone in Ontario 40 and older.

OPH reported a new shipment this week of 25,740 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. To date, Ottawa has received 305,130 doses of COVID-19 vaccines from the provincial government.

The number of eligible residents (i.e. 16 and older) with at least one dose of a vaccine is now up to 28 per cent.

Tuesday was Ottawa’s second-busiest day for vaccinations overall, with the OPH reporting 9,729 shots administered. Last Friday saw 9,887 shots administered in a single day.

QUICK STATS

  • Ottawa residents with at least one dose: 248,668
  • Ottawa residents with two doses: 26,722
  • Percent of eligible population (residents 16 and older) with at least one dose: 28 per cent
  • Percent of eligible population (residents 16 and older) with two doses: 3 per cent
  • Percent of total population with at least one dose: 24 per cent
  • Percent of total population with two doses: 3 per cent

VACCINATION COVERAGE BY AGE FOR OTTAWA RESIDENTS WITH AT LEAST ONE DOSE

  • 10-19: 1.6 per cent (1,804 people)
  • 20-29: 8.3 per cent (13,452 people)
  • 30-39: 9.5 per cent (14,999 people)
  • 40-49: 12.9 per cent (17,350 people)
  • 50-59: 28.8 per cent (40,320 people)
  • 60-69: 49.3 per cent (58,627 people)
  • 70-79: 82.9 per cent (62,808 people)
  • 80-89: 87.5 per cent (29,358 people)
  • 90+: 89.2 per cent (7,893 people)
  • Unknown age: 2,057 people 

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