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 regret participating in the process, casting doubt on the credibility of a vote won overwhelmingly by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's ruling alliance.
The president of the SAARC Human Rights Foundation told Reuters he now believed there should be a fresh vote after hearing accounts from voters and officials presiding over polling booths that activists from Hasina's Awami League stuffed ballot boxes the night before the poll and intimidated voters.
"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.
A Canadian observer who was brought in by the foundation has also said she now wishes she had not been involved.
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 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 centres. 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).
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. [nL3N1Z20I8]
Ahead of the election, the U.S. State Department had expressed disappointment that several U.S.-funded observers had been forced to cancel plans to monitor 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, congratulated Hasina on the win.
The first to speak was a representative of the foundation, a Canadian woman named Tanya 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), the SAARC Human Rights Foundation has no affiliation with that inter-governmental body.
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. "The organization is not recognised by SAARC and does not have any relation with SAARC whatsoever," the spokesman said.
The SAARC Human Rights Foundation's website says it is based in Dhaka and its initials stand for South Asian Association for Research Council.
Its advisory committee includes a lawmaker from Hasina's Awami League, and one 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.
Bangladesh law bars the Election Commission from allowing observer groups with links to political parties from monitoring polls.
The secretary of Bangladesh's Election Commission, Helal Uddin Ahmed, said it had no knowledge of links between Ali's groups and any political party.
Referring to the Awami League and Jatiya Party lawmakers on the group's board, Ali said: "They are just supporting our humanitarian activities."
"I want to make it clear that we have no affiliation with any political party," he added.
But at the headquarters of the foundation, a dusty two-room ground floor apartment in the industrial town of Mirpur on the outskirts of Dhaka, there are regrets.
Salam, the group's president, said the observers fielded by his organisation had only monitored a few polling stations, so were in no position to make a clear assessment of the election's fairness.
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. "I am not doing this for any political gain."
He said he was not directly involved in organising the poll observers.
Ali dismissed the president's comments, saying: "Can you write something just based on someone saying something?"
Tanya 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.
Foster said she was not aware of the foundation's links to the Awami League or the lack of affiliation to SAARC.
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 centres 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."
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.
To be sure, not all the observers fielded by the foundation regret endorsing the voting. 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.
(Additional reporting by Serajul Quadir in DHAKA and Gopal Sharma in KATHMANDU; Editing by Martin Howell and Alex Richardson)