Last Updated: Monday, 28 July 2014, 16:37 GMT

USCIRF Annual Report 2010 - Additional Countries Closely Monitored: Bangladesh

Publisher United States Commission on International Religious Freedom
Publication Date 29 April 2010
Cite as United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, USCIRF Annual Report 2010 - Additional Countries Closely Monitored: Bangladesh, 29 April 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4be28407d.html [accessed 29 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

USCIRF placed Bangladesh on the Watch List from 2005 to 2008. That placement was due to past election-related violence targeting religious minorities and the then-government's failure to investigate or prosecute perpetrators of such violence; attacks by Islamist extremists on the country's secular judicial system, civil society, and democratic political institutions; religiously-motivated threats to freedom of expression to discuss sensitive social issues; the seizure of Hindu-owned property and continued failure to restore such properties or to reimburse the rightful owners; and the greater vulnerability of members of religious minority communities, particularly women, to exploitation or violence.

In December 2008, free and fair elections restored democratic government in Bangladesh, following a two-year interruption by a military-backed caretaker regime. The 2008 elections brought to power the Awami League, considered to be the most secular and favorably disposed toward minority rights among Bangladesh's major political parties. The 2008 elections were free of the anti-minority violence that followed the last national elections in October 2001. Following those earlier elections, the then-government, composed of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its Islamist coalition partners, failed to investigate or prosecute acts of severe violence, including killings, rape, land seizures, arson, and extortion against religious minorities, particularly Hindus, who were perceived to be allied with the then-opposition Awami League.

The new government, headed by Sheikh Hasina Wajed, included three non-Muslims among the 38 ministerial positions. Members of minority communities also were appointed to other senior government and diplomatic positions. In April 2009, the Prime Minister made a public commitment that her government would repeal all laws that discriminate against members of minority communities, ensure freedom of expression for members of all religious communities, and uphold equality of opportunity and equal rights for all citizens. The Prime Minister also declared that the government would keep past commitments to the predominantly non-Muslim indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) region. In light of these positive developments, USCIRF removed Bangladesh from its Watch List in 2009.

Despite some improvements, the government of Bangladesh nevertheless continues to show serious weaknesses in protecting human rights, including religious freedom, and religious extremism remains a persistent threat to rule of law and democratic institutions. Accordingly, USCIRF continues to urge the government to strengthen protections for all Bangladeshis to enjoy the right to freedom of religion or belief, and to undertake further efforts to improve conditions for minority religious communities. USCIRF hopes that the government of Bangladesh will investigate and to the fullest extent of the law prosecute perpetrators of violent acts against members of minority religious communities, women, and non-governmental organizations. Reforms of the judiciary and the police also are necessary to ensure that law enforcement and security services are equally protective of the rights of all, including Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Ahmadis, tribal peoples, and other minorities. Additional efforts are needed to counter societal and governmental discrimination in access to public services, the legal system, and government, military, and police employment.

Since assuming office, the Awami League government has initiated a number of steps affecting freedom of religion or belief. The government's appointments and public statements have given increased confidence to members of religious minority communities and have put Islamist groups on the defensive. For example, in October 2009, President Zillur Rahman called publicly for inter-religious harmony as a means of combating religious extremism. President Rahman is the widower of the Awami League women's affairs secretary who was among the victims of a grenade attack by Islamist extremists in 2004. Despite opposition criticism, the government passed legislation that could lead to trials of pro-Pakistan Islamists implicated in war crimes during Bangladesh's 1971 war for independence, including former cabinet member and Jamaat-e-Islami leader Motiur Rahman Nizami. The government also welcomed recent court rulings restoring pro-secular provisions in Bangladesh's constitution. These rulings could provide a legal basis for banning existing Islamist political parties, even those that espouse achieving Islamist goals through democratic means.

The government has continued the process, begun under the previous caretaker government, of establishing a National Human Rights Commission. Although human rights conditions have improved since the return of democratic government, the security forces continue to be implicated in extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, torture, and intimidation of the media. The Commission, chaired by a former Supreme Court justice, has the authority to investigate and request reports from the government on such abuses, whether by military personnel, police, or members of other security forces. As of this writing, the Commission has not established a high public profile, perhaps due to its having only three members and limited staff. The Commission has publicly expressed concern at reports of extrajudicial killings, calling in one case for the establishment of an impartial high-level inquiry and making specific recommendations regarding the conduct of such inquiries. The Commission does not appear to have taken on any cases involving religious freedom issues or concerning members of religious minority communities.

Despite the existence of the Human Rights Commission and in response to a court order, the government in December 2009 announced that it would establish another official commission to investigate the violence, primarily against Hindus, that followed the October 2001 elections. Since beginning its activities in February 2010, this commission has sent letters to political figures and to human rights and other civil society groups seeking information on the 2001 violence, held several public meetings, and undertaken field visits to the most affected areas. . Originally given four months to complete its work, this commission has requested that the government extend its mandate until July 2010 due to the number and serious nature of the reported abuses.

The government also has pursued action in the courts to restore, to some degree, the original secular character of Bangladesh's constitution by removing some of the changes introduced by previous military regimes. Court decisions in January and February 2010 appeared to support this policy. Following independence from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh was established as a secular state in which national identity was based on Bengali language and culture. The 1972 constitution established a secular state and guaranteed freedom of religion and conscience and equality before the law. Other provisions banned "all kinds of communalism," the misuse of religion for political purposes, and the forming of groups that "in the name of or on the basis of any religion has for its object or pursues a political purpose." Subsequent military regimes removed these restrictions, added in Arabic the traditional Islamic invocation customarily translated as "In the name of God the compassionate, the merciful," and substituted "absolute trust and faith in Allah" for "secularism" as one of the fundamental principles of state policy. "Absolute trust and faith in Allah" was furthermore to be "the basis for all [government] actions." Islam was made Bangladesh's state religion in 1988 under H.M. Ershad's military dictatorship. The Prime Minister has indicated, however, that she has no intention of disestablishing Islam as the state religion or removing the Islamic invocation added to the constitution by her military predecessors.

Aided by the expansion of madrassas (Islamic schools) and charities, many of which receive foreign funding with varying degrees of government oversight, Islamist activists have gained political, economic, and social influence. When in power during the coalition with the larger BNP between 2001 and 2006, members of Jamaat-e-Islami allegedly used their positions to deny funding to or otherwise disadvantage groups viewed as opposing Jamaat's Islamist political and social agenda. Although some calling for a more Islamist Bangladesh have engaged in peaceful political and social activities, others have adopted an approach sanctioning violence towards perceived opponents of Islam.

Even during periods of democratic governance, Bangladesh's high levels of political violence and instability have provided opportunities for religious and other extremist groups to engage in criminal activities with relative impunity. Authors, journalists, academics, and women's rights and civil society activists debating sensitive social or political issues, or expressing opinions deemed by radical Islamists to be offensive to Islam, have been subject to violent, sometimes fatal, attacks. Some Muslim clerics, especially in rural areas, have also sanctioned vigilante punishments against women for alleged moral transgressions. Rape is reportedly a common form of anti-minority violence. The government often fails to punish perpetrators, since the law enforcement and the judicial systems, especially at the local level, are vulnerable to corruption, intimidation, and political interference. Bangladesh was ranked at the bottom of Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index between 2001 and 2005. Bangladesh improved its ranking significantly by 2009 to 139th of 180 countries listed.

During the past year, Bangladesh generally was free of Islamist violence that had escalated earlier in the decade, reaching a peak when Islamist extremists coordinated a wave of hundreds of almost simultaneous bomb attacks on August 17, 2005 in all but one of Bangladesh's 64 districts. These extremists also were implicated in a series of bomb attacks on Bangladesh's judiciary in October-November 2005 which accompanied a demand to substitute sharia law for Bangladesh's secular jurisprudence system. In March 2007, six members of an armed Islamist group were executed for their involvement in the 2005 bombings.

Attacks on members of religious or ethnic minorities or their properties, including thefts and vandalism at Hindu temples, continue to be a problem, although it is difficult to distinguish criminal intent from religious animosity or other possible motives. Weak and corrupt law enforcement leaves members of religious minority communities vulnerable to harassment and sometimes violence, particularly sexual violence against women, by members of the Muslim majority. Although the constitution provides protections for women and minorities, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Ahmadis, tribal peoples, and other minorities must regularly grapple with societal discrimination, as well as face prejudice that hinders their ability to access public services, the legal system, and government, military, and police employment. Religious minorities are also underrepresented in elected political offices, including the national parliament.

Since the Pakistan era, Muslims, particularly those who are well-connected politically, have used The Vested Property Act (VPA) to seize Hindu-owned land. The VPA's implicit presumption that Hindus do not belong in Bangladesh contributes to the perception that Hindu-owned property can be seized with impunity. Bangladesh's National Assembly began consideration in January 2010 of government-backed legislation on this issue and minority-group representatives were permitted to express their concerns in testimony before parliament. USCIRF welcomed this development in a public statement urging the government to consult legal scholars and representatives of the affected communities in order to devise remedies for past abuses and prevent further property seizures based on the owners' religious affiliation. However, as of this writing, no new legislation has been passed. Despite attention to this issue at the national political level, Hindu-owned property continued to be seized. In the Sutrapu district of Dhaka in March/April 2009, police reportedly stood by as Muslims violently disposed poor Hindus of land given to them by Hindu landowners leaving for India in 1947. In March 2010, local officials of the governing Awami League were reported to have seized land belonging to a temple in Kaliazuri in the remote northern district of Netrakona.

Ethnically, Bangladesh is highly homogeneous, with more than 98 percent of the population being Bengali. Members of ethnic minority communities, mostly tribal peoples in the north and in the east, are often non-Muslim. The most serious and sustained conflict along ethnic and religious lines has been in the CHT, an area with a high concentration of non-Bengali, non-Muslim indigenous peoples. Resentment among members of indigenous groups remains strong over settler encroachment on traditional tribal lands, human rights abuses by the Bangladeshi military, and the slow, inconsistent implementation of the 1997 CHT Peace Accords. Muslim Bengalis, once a tiny minority in the CHT, now reportedly equal or outnumber indigenous groups. In February 2010, ethnic Bengali settlers reportedly attacked indigenous inhabitants of the CHT's Rangamati Hill District, leaving two indigenous Chakma dead and a number of homes and shops destroyed. The government sent senior central and local government officials, including members of indigenous groups, to investigate. They determined that the conflict originated in a land dispute. In what appears to have been another land dispute with ethnic/religious overtones in northern Bangladesh's Rangpur district in March 2010, Catholics who were members of a tribal community were attacked by neighboring Muslims after a local court favored a church over a Muslim-run school regarding ownership of some property. There were also credible reports in early 2010 of Bangladeshi security forces using violence to force members of the Rohingya ethnic group back into Burma, from which members of this Muslim minority community had fled due to severe persecution.

Bangladesh's small Ahmadi community of about 100,000 has been the target of a campaign to designate the Ahmadis as "non-Muslim" heretics. In January 2004, the then-government, led by the BNP in coalition with Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh and a smaller Islamist party, banned the publication and distribution of Ahmadi religious literature. Police seized Ahmadi publications on a few occasions before the courts in December 2004 stayed the ban. . Since then, the ban has not been enforced, although it has never been officially rescinded. In some instances, local anti-Ahmadi agitation has been accompanied by mob violence in which Ahmadi homes have been destroyed and Ahmadis are held against their will and pressured to recant. However, violence against Ahmadis has diminished in recent years due to improved and more vigorous police protection. Bangladeshi Ahmadis were able to hold their annual national convention in March 2010, in the eastern city of Brahmanbaria, although they received death threats from anti-Ahmadi groups. They also were subject to written restrictions from the police (including regarding religious content), who entered the Ahmadi mosque to order the cutting off the mosque's internal sound system.

Based on the foregoing concerns, USCIRF continues to recommend that the U.S. government encourage the government of Bangladesh to take action on the following issues and ensure consistent implementation: investigate and prosecute to the fullest extent of the law perpetrators of violent acts against members of religious minority communities, women, and non-governmental organizations promoting international human rights standards; repeal the Vested Property Act and commit to restoring or compensating for properties seized, including to the heirs of original owners; rescind the 2004 order banning Ahmadi publications, and ensure adequate police response to attacks against Ahmadis; enforce all provisions of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accords and ensure that members of all tribal communities are afforded the full rights of Bangladeshi citizenship; ensure that the National Human Rights Commission is truly independent, adequately funded, inclusive of women and minorities, and possessed of a broad mandate that includes freedom of religion or belief; include in all public and madrassa school curricula, textbooks, and teacher trainings information on tolerance and respect for freedom of religion or belief; and ensure that members of minority communities have equal access to government services and public employment, including in the judiciary and high-level government positions.

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