Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 December 2014, 12:47 GMT

Countries at the Crossroads 2005 - Bangladesh

Publisher Freedom House
Author Rounaq Jahan
Publication Date 5 May 2005
Cite as Freedom House, Countries at the Crossroads 2005 - Bangladesh, 5 May 2005, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47386900c.html [accessed 26 December 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.

(Scores are based on a scale of 0 to 7, with 0 representing weakest and 7 representing strongest performance.)

Introduction

Author

Rounaq Jahan is Senior Research Scholar, Southern Asian Institute, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, New York.

In December 1990 a people's movement toppled 15 years of military rule in Bangladesh. Since 1991, the country has witnessed three national parliamentary elections held at regular five-year intervals that on the whole have been assessed as free and fair by national and international election monitors. The elections resulted in rotation of power between the two major political parties.

The elections were organized under a neutral non-party caretaker government (CG), which was institutionalized by a constitutional amendment in 1996. In 2004, the Awami League (AL), the main opposition party at that time, started demanding reforms of the CG system, alleging that the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – led coalition government was trying to manipulate the leadership of the next CG. The contention over the neutrality of the CG has raised doubts about the smooth organization of the next parliamentary election, scheduled for 2006. The year 2004 also saw continued confrontations between the election commission (EC) and the government over the conduct of elections.

In 2004, repeated bomb and grenade attacks on political and cultural events, assaults on prominent individuals, illegal arms shipments, and the growing violence of Islamist and other extremist groups shook public confidence in the government's ability to maintain law and order. The legislative and judicial branches of government were rather ineffective in holding the executive branch accountable. Parliament hardly functioned because the main opposition party, the AL, boycotted most parliamentary sessions, alleging government repression and denial of opportunities to debate critical issues of public concern. In the absence of separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary, the lower judiciary in particular remained largely under the control of the executive branch. A worrisome development was the increasing politicization of the civil bureaucracy.

The Bangladesh constitution guarantees fundamental rights and civil liberties. But over the years the government has also formulated some laws that limit civil liberties. Women and ethnic and religious minorities often face discrimination.

Civil society and the media have emerged as the two most effective instruments of accountability and public voice in Bangladesh. But civil society groups themselves face government harassment and repression. Many have become politicized along party lines. The media have also come under strong pressure from state and non-state actors. Hundreds of journalists have faced intimidation and assaults, and five were killed in 2004.

Accountability and Public Voice – 3.63

In December 1990 a people's movement ended 15 years of military rule in Bangladesh, and the contending political parties reached a consensus that in the future, winning free and fair elections would be the legitimate means of gaining and continuing in state power. Since 1991, three national parliamentary elections have been held at regular five-year intervals; the elections were judged to be largely free and fair by national and international election monitors. The losing party in each election complained of vote rigging, but in all cases it finally accepted the election results and agreed to serve as the opposition in parliament. The elections resulted in rotation of power between the two major political parties: The BNP won the 1991 and 2001 elections and the AL won in 1996.

Each of the three elections was organized under a neutral non-party CG, and all political parties enjoyed equal campaigning opportunities. Voter turnout has sharply increased from 56 percent in 1991 to 75 percent in 1996 and 2001.1

The first CG in 1991 was an ad hoc arrangement; the next two, in 1996 and 2001, were institutionalized by a constitutional amendment that stipulates that at the end of five years the government stands dissolved and a non-party CG is formed whose main task is to organize a free and fair parliamentary election within 90 days. According to the constitution, the non-party CG is headed by the most recently retired chief justice or, if he or she is not available, the previous one.

The AL had launched a two-year-long mass campaign for the institutionalization of a non-party CG between 1994 and 1996, and the party again raised questions about the neutrality of the CG of 2001. In 2004, the AL yet again started demanding reforms of the CG system, alleging that the ruling BNP-led coalition government was trying to predetermine the leadership of the next CG by increasing the retirement age of Supreme Court judges to 67; this would ensure that the last retired chief justice, K. M. Hasan, would become the leader of the CG in 2006. The AL alleged that Justice K. M. Hasan is a BNP sympathizer.2 The BNP-led coalition government has so far refused to enter into any dialogue with the AL over the issue of CG reforms. The contention over the neutrality of the CG has raised doubts about the smooth organization of the next parliamentary election as the ground rules for free and fair elections have again been opened up for debate. The future of electoral democracy in Bangladesh appears to be uncertain in the absence of a negotiated consensus between the two major political parties on the rules of the political game.

The year 2004 also saw continued friction between the election commission (EC) and the government over the conduct of elections. The opposition political parties made persistent allegations that the ruling coalition was rigging votes. The most notable case was that of a by-election in the Dhaka 10 constituency, where a vacancy occurred in March when a ruling BNP member of parliament, Major Mannan, resigned to join a newly formed opposition party, Bikalpa Dhara Bangladesh (BDB). In the ensuing by-election, Major Mannan was twice denied the electoral symbol chosen by the BDB until a high court ruled in his favor.3 The voting on July 1, 2004, ended with the victory of the ruling coalition candidate, Mosaddak Ali Falu. Major Mannan and the election monitoring bodies alleged massive vote rigging and appealed to the EC to cancel the election. The media widely reported on cases of vote fraud.4 The EC admitted that the election was unsatisfactory but argued that it was legally powerless to cancel the election or challenge the result.5 The EC's autonomy is compromised by its dependence on the government for funding, recruitment and posting of officers, and control over the machinery of law enforcement during elections.

The future of free and fair elections was also jeopardized by the increasing criminalization of politics and use of money and mastaans (hoodlums) to capture votes, not just in parliamentary elections but also in local elections. The electoral laws stipulating a ceiling on campaign spending and other electoral guidelines have been regularly violated with impunity over successive elections, continuing throughout 2004. Innumerable public discussions have put forward recommendations for strengthening the EC to make it independent of executive pressure, but these debates, largely limited to civil society and minor political parties, receive very little attention or support from the major parties.

Civil society, the media, and the international community have for some years been registering their growing concern about the deteriorating state of governance in Bangladesh. These concerns were fully captured in the statement on the topic by the vice president of the World Bank at the meeting of the Bangladesh Development Forum in Dhaka in May 2004.6 The media and civil society remained proactive in pointing out governance failures and demanding accountability from the government. But the legislature and judiciary, who are in theory mandated to hold the executive branch accountable, have proved inadequate in discharging their responsibilities.

Although Bangladesh has had a parliamentary system since 1991, in practice, parliament hardly functions as an effective accountability mechanism. Regardless of which party is in power, the main opposition party has boycotted most parliamentary sessions, alleging government repression and impediments in parliament to voicing its views. The year 2004 saw no exception to this practice; the AL for the most part refrained from participating in parliament. The AL also boycotted parliamentary committees due to controversies over their composition. In the absence of scrutiny and oversight by the legislative branch, the executive continued to function like the vice-regal system of the British and Pakistani colonial days, with few checks on its actions.7

The increasing politicization of the civil bureaucracy is a serious cause for concern. Although the civil service is, in principle, recruited on merit and inherited a tradition of neutrality from colonial days, over the years there has been a growing tendency to apply partisan criteria in its selection and promotion. One of the instruments used to compromise the political autonomy of the bureaucracy has been the extension of senior civil servants' service on contract after they have passed the compulsory retirement age. There have also been allegations of partisan influence in recruitment and promotion of various officials.

In the absence of an effective parliament or other accountability mechanisms, civil society and the media have emerged as effective instruments of accountability and public voice in Bangladesh. A large and proactive civil society, including numerous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), has gained an international reputation both in delivering services and in advocacy. Government regulations for NGO registration remain time consuming. Government approval is required to receive donor funds, although donors have been relatively free of state pressure in funding NGOs registered with the government. NGOs have been vocal in protesting violations of human rights and providing critiques of public policies and legislation. For example, civil society, particularly human rights organizations, led protests against the government's ban on the publications of the Ahmadiyya community on January 7, 2004.8 Ahmadiyya, a small Muslim minority sect, has come under attack by extremist Sunni groups who have been increasing pressure on the government to declare the Ahmadiyyas as non-Muslim. Islamic Oikkya Jote (IOJ), one of the two Islamist parties in the ruling coalition, has tacitly supported this demand. Throughout the year civil society groups repeatedly mobilized to defend the Ahmadiyya mosques against pre-announced attacks by Islamist extremists.9

Civil society groups were equally vocal in protesting extra-judicial killings of various individuals by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite anti-crime force drawn from the police, army, navy, and air force that was launched in June 2004. The government labeled these killings as "crossfire" deaths. In addition, several rights groups filed public-interest litigation in the high court challenging the mass arrests that took place in April 2004 (see "Civil Liberties").10

Civil society groups themselves have faced harassment and repression from the government. Proshika – one of the largest NGOs, with involvement in both micro-credit and social advocacy – and a few like-minded NGOs were targeted in particular for their alleged pro-AL sympathies. Several officials and workers of Proshika, including its chief, Kazi Faruque Ahmed, were imprisoned on charges of corruption. Kazi Faruque Ahmed was later charged with sedition. Ahmed and his colleagues were finally freed after months of legal battles.11 Donors funding Proshika had refused to accept the government's allegations of corruption and instituted their own audits, which cleared Proshika. Unfortunately, as with other elements of civil society, the NGO community has become divided along partisan lines, weakening their ability to speak with a united voice.

The media have also come under strong pressure from state and non-state actors. Five journalists were killed, 111 were injured, and cases were filed against 63 others in 2004. A further 263 journalists received death threats from various fundamentalist or criminal organizations.12 Editors of four leading newspapers faced libel suits. Despite these risks, privately owned media, both print and electronic, reported freely on governance failures and human rights violations. Privately owned newspapers and television channels largely determine their own media content free of government control. However, threats and attacks as well of fear of incurring official displeasure result in a degree of self-censorship on the editorial content of some private media. Individual citizens were on the whole free to express their opinions. Government-owned radio and television tend to be constrained in their freedom of expression, but threats to freedom of expression came more from non-state extremist groups than from the state. Nevertheless, by widely publicizing extra-judicial killings as well as the atrocities of Bangla Bhai and other extremist groups, election fraud, political repression, and assassinations, the media remained an important instrument for holding the government accountable before the court of public opinion. For example, as a result of media publicity, the government was finally compelled to take action against Bangla Bhai.

Recommendations

  • A system of co-chairmanship should be introduced in parliamentary committees so that both the ruling and the opposition political parties feel equal ownership and participate in the work of the committees.
  • The election commission should be made fully independent of the executive branch. To this end, it should have an independent budget and freedom to recruit its own staff. It should also be able to exercise control over the machinery of law enforcement before and during elections. It should be fully empowered to punish violations of electoral rules.
  • Campaign finance and other electoral reforms should be introduced and enforced.
  • The existing government regulations controlling NGOs should be changed to ensure greater autonomy from government control. A joint government-NGO body should be set up to oversee the conduct of the NGOs.
  • The state should protect journalists from harassment and attacks by non-state actors by applying the full force of the law against those who threaten or attack journalists.

Civil Liberties – 4.05

The Bangladesh constitution guarantees fundamental rights and civil liberties. Political, cultural, and religious freedoms for all groups are protected. All citizens are recognized as equal irrespective of their ethnicity, gender, or religion. The constitution also mandates affirmative action measures to promote gender, racial, and social equality and eliminate discrimination. Notwithstanding the law, in practice women and ethnic and religious minorities often face discrimination. Over the years Bangladesh has also formulated some laws that limit civil liberties.

In 2004, the newspapers reported many incidents of state terror. The most prominent examples were extrajudicial killings by law enforcement officers, who killed a total of 238 people in 2004. Some of these killings were carried out by newly constituted special forces – with names such as RAB, Cheetah, and Cobra – who were specifically empowered and equipped to combat the escalating crime rates. In addition, these forces killed approximately 147 people in what were presumed to be staged encounters with people the government referred to as criminals.13 Newspapers also reported police torture of people in detention.

Odhikar, a human rights group, reported 522 people killed in political violence in 2004. The state not only failed to protect against these political killings, it resorted to arbitrary arrests of political opponents and even innocent citizens. For example, police and members of the Bangladesh Rifles, a paramilitary force under the Home Ministry, arrested 8,500 people in the run-up to the April 30 deadline given by the AL to oust the government. From September 23 to 29, ahead of the AL's planned October 3 mass rally, police arrested 5,748 people.14 Citizens had no redress against such human rights violations beyond petitioning the courts.

Repeated bomb and grenade attacks on political and cultural events, assaults on prominent individuals, illegal arms shipments, and the growing violence of Islamist and other extremist groups shook public confidence in the government's ability to maintain law and order. On January 12, 2004, five people were killed by bomb blasts at Hazrat Shahjalal Shrine in the northeastern city of Sylhet. On May 21, again at the Shahjalal Shrine, an attempt was made to assassinate the British High Commissioner, Anwar Choudhury, in a grenade attack that injured him and killed two other people.15 On August 7 a car bomb killed AL leader Mohammad Ibrahim.16 The year's biggest grenade attack, on August 21 at an AL rally in the capital city, Dhaka, killed 23 people, including senior AL leader Ivy Rahman, and maimed and injured hundreds. The AL Chief Sheikh Hasina was targeted but miraculously escaped with minor injures.17 The government sought the assistance of Interpol, the FBI, and Scotland Yard in investigating the grenade attacks on the UK High Commissioner and the August 21 AL rally, but these investigations have so far failed to identify the culprits.

In 2004, human rights groups and the media also reported increasing killings, abductions, ransom-seeking, and rape by non-state actors. According to these groups, 866 women and children were raped and, of them, 116 were killed.18 Furthermore, the government has yet to take any step to fill the office of the ombudsman, which was created by an act of parliament in 1980 but has never been filled. The government also made no progress in creating a human rights commission. A draft bill had been prepared but has yet to be tabled in parliament.

Throughout 2004, newspapers widely publicized the spate of killings and abductions carried out by an Islamist militant organization, Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), in the northern region. However, top government officials persisted in denying the existence of its leader, Siddiqual Islam, alias Bangla Bhai, until the prime minister issued a directive for his arrest. However, Bangla Bhai remained at large for a long time, reportedly due to immunity from the local agents of law enforcement.19 [Editor's note: Bangla Bhai was arrested in 2005.]

The Bangladesh constitution guarantees freedom of association and assembly, yet these rights were repeatedly violated by the state in 2004. Partisan supporters of the ruling coalition disrupted the meetings of the newly formed political party, BDB, and rallies and protest marches of the AL.20 In addition, law enforcement agencies tended to apply excessive force in dealing with peaceful demonstrations and public protests.

The organized trade union movement in Bangladesh remains weak, politically fragmented, and in many cases subject to control by individual leaders or employers. As a result, rates of trade union membership in Bangladesh remain among the lowest in the world. In the principal export industry – ready-made garments – most owners severely discourage unionization of their workers and prefer to treat them as casual labor with few legally enforceable rights. Formation of trade unions in the export processing zones is illegal, and unions affiliated with the political opposition tend to face repression. In the past decade, many professional and business organizations have also become politically factionalized.

The year 2004 also witnessed state actions in restricting some religious freedoms. As mentioned above, one of the partners of the ruling coalition, IOJ, started a mass agitation to put pressure on the government to declare the Ahmadiyya community to be non-Muslims. The government resisted the pressure from its coalition partner, and the police protected Ahmadiyya mosques from the attacks of the extremists. However, the government eventually succumbed to the pressure of the religious extremist groups and their colleagues in the coalition and banned Ahmadiyya publications on January 8, 2004. As with the Ahmadiyya mosques, the government also took steps to provide police protection for the religious festivals of other minorities, most notably the Hindus. No major incident of Hindu-Muslim communal violence was reported in the media in 2004. However, over the past few decades Hindus have faced continual discrimination. For example, immediately following the 2001 elections, the Hindus were subjected to various forms of violence including killing, assault, rape, ransom-seeking, and loss of property.

The state continued to take some proactive measures, such as an employment quota and free education for girls up to the secondary level, to promote gender equity. Special measures have also been taken to protect rights of excluded groups, such as the disabled. Since independence, Bangladesh has adopted several laws and policies to advance women's empowerment. Laws relating to age at marriage, dowry, and violence against women have been formulated to modify and abolish discriminatory social customs. The government also adopted a law and action plan to ensure equal access to opportunities for people with disabilities. Nevertheless there remains a wide gap between the laws and policies and their actual implementation and practice.

Two issues relating to gender equity gained prominence in 2004. Despite a persistent demand by women's organizations for a quota of seats reserved for women in parliament based on direct election, and despite consensus among all women's groups that women should be permitted to contest the reserved seats directly, in 2004 the government introduced a constitutional amendment (14th Amendment) stipulating women's reserved seats in parliament on the basis of indirect election. Women's rights groups protested against the 14th Amendment on the streets as well as through filing a petition in the high court against the amendment, arguing that it violates the principles of the constitution. But the government nevertheless used its two-thirds majority in parliament to pass the 14th Amendment.21

The other issue relating to gender that gained international publicity was the blacklisting of Bangladesh by the U.S. Department of State on June 15, 2004, on the ground that the government has failed to take adequate steps to curb the high rate of trafficking in women and children. The State Department report maintained that an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 women and young girls are trafficked annually from Bangladesh.22 The Bangladesh government contradicted this figure, claiming that only 708 women and children had been trafficked in 2004. The U.S. government warned Bangladesh of economic sanctions if it failed to take measures to improve the situation within 60 days.23 After the U.S. threat, the Bangladesh government moved quickly to introduce several concrete measures to constrain trafficking: revival of the police anti-trafficking unit, appointment of a special prosecutor for dealing with trafficking cases in expedited courts, institution of a referral mechanism for the victims to avail themselves of services offered by NGOs, speedy disposal of 17 pending cases relating to trafficking, and a listing of traffickers.24 Once the government of Bangladesh made public announcement of these specific steps, the U.S. government withdrew the threat of economic sanctions.

Recommendations

  • The state should rescind all laws and directives that limit fundamental rights of citizens guaranteed by the constitution.
  • An independent and bipartisan commission should be established to investigate the acts of terror by state as well as non-state actors and recommend actions.
  • Extrajudicial killings by law enforcement officials should be promptly investigated, and the culprits should be tried and punished.
  • The state should take measures such as female scholarship programs to provide incentives for the implementation of laws to promote gender equity. It should also provide equal access to opportunities by other marginalized groups such as people with disabilities and religious and ethnic minorities.

Rule of Law – 3.42

Historically Bangladesh has prided itself on a relatively independent, impartial, and nondiscriminatory judiciary. However, this proposition has remained more valid for the upper judiciary, which consists of the high court and appellate divisions of the Supreme Court, than for the lower courts – the district courts and magistracy. Appointments to the lower judiciary and career advancement remain within the direct control of the executive, which has increasingly compromised the courts' independence. In theory judges in the lower judiciary are recruited on the basis of competitive examinations, but their career advancement remains exposed to politicization and patronage. The judgments of the lower judiciary are not only subject to political and administrative interference from the executive but tend to be amenable to financial inducements to influence their decisions. In practice, this has meant that political opponents of the regime who have been arbitrarily taken into custody on flimsy legal grounds can be denied bail by the lower courts and kept in custody until bail is obtained from the higher courts. Thus, political figures, journalists, and NGO executives who have been victimized by the government have been subject to arbitrary arrest and exposed to torture and denied due process until their lawyers can work their way through the lower judiciary to appeal to the Supreme Court.

The upper judiciary was until recently relatively immune from political patronage. However, in the last few years appointments to the high court division of the Supreme Court have been exposed to political influences. Appointments to the appellate division, the highest tier of the judiciary, have tended to be above controversy largely because such appointments follow a seniority principle for elevating judges from the high court to the appellate division. However, successive governments have occasionally interfered with the seniority principle, apparently on political grounds. This has applied, in particular, to the appointment of the chief justice (see "Accountability and Public Voice"). Recently, the appointment of the chief justice has become politically contentious because after his retirement he may head the CG.

Judicial appointments became quite controversial in 2004. In August, the government appointed 19 judges to the high court simultaneously. However, the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA), the principal representative body of the bar, deemed a number of these appointees professionally incompetent; their promotion was seen to be largely an act of political patronage. The SCBA appealed to both the government and the chief justice to rescind some of the more egregious appointments. Failure to respond to the request led a segment of the SCBA to boycott the courts of the more unacceptable of the judicial appointees.25

The training of the lower judiciary tends to be shallow; lawyers complain of some judges' poor comprehension of certain points of law and the resulting weakness of their judgments. This complaint now extends to the upper judiciary, where deterioration in professional quality has been observed. This owes in some measure to the fact that the best lawyers practicing in the Supreme Court rarely choose to make themselves available for judicial appointment because of the severe loss of income involved. As a result, relatively less successful lawyers are now being elevated to the bench.

Public prosecutors are very much creatures of the government and are largely appointed according to their political affiliation. The question of independent action by such prosecutors therefore hardly arises, particularly when political opponents are in the dock.

The legal system of Bangladesh works on the presumption of innocence until a person is proven guilty. However in practice many people, particularly the poor, are exposed to arbitrary arrest and can be held for long periods in custody without trial. A fair and timely hearing, based on access to independent counsel, is a fundamental right enshrined in the constitution, but the exercise of this right is severely circumscribed by the financial means of the citizen. The government has taken no practical measures to provide independent counsel to the poor. NGOs have attempted to provide legal aid, but the capacity of such organizations is severely limited by their narrow resource base.

The government generally complies with judicial decisions. However, in practice, executive enforcement of judicial decisions often takes a long time, which is particularly problematic in judgments involving commercial and financial issues. In response to written petitions by NGOs and private citizens during 2004, the courts issued stay orders on a number of government decisions. Yet the executive branch delayed their implementation by counter-petitions and other tactics. In one instance, the executive branch distorted and misinterpreted a court order about the separation of the judiciary from the executive branch.26 The Supreme Court issued several contempt orders against the executive branch including one against the chief of police, forcing his early retirement.27

The prosecution of ruling-party actors for abuse of power is rare. In some cases criminals with ruling party affiliations are detained for particular criminal acts, but this too is infrequent, and such persons rarely spend any extended time in custody. In these circumstances, treatment by the lower courts is influenced by the political orientation of the person involved, although the upper judiciary is more likely to be politically neutral in its judgments.

According to the constitution, civilian authorities control the police, military, and internal security forces. In practice, these forces sometimes overstep the bounds of law under the political direction of the ruling party. A recent and disturbing manifestation of law enforcement without accountability has been the creation of the RAB (see "Accountability and Public Voice"). The RAB's main task is to track down and apprehend criminal elements who have created an atmosphere of insecurity throughout the country. The RAB since its inception has pursued an aggressive strategy against criminal gang members that has led to a large number of killings in so-called crossfire after people have been arrested. These crossfire custodial deaths are viewed by human rights groups as a form of extrajudicial execution arising from lack of civilian oversight of the RAB. These extrajudicial executions have generated serious disquiet within the political opposition as well as among civil society and have now drawn the attention of the international community as well. However, arbitrary action by law enforcement agencies can still be subject to the rule of law through reference to the higher judiciary, who have frequently intervened to curb arbitrary behavior.28

The military, by and large, tend to be free of the influence of non-state actors and have in the post-1991 situation attempted to avoid being drawn into the political disputes of the major political parties. The internal security services also tend to be immune from outside political influence. The police, on the other hand, are known to build alliances with both commercial and criminal interests.

Although the military was involved in the seizure of power from an elected government in 1975 and then again in 1982, and ran the country under martial law after these interventions, since 1991 the country has been ruled by elected governments. In recent years the military and internal security forces have not overtly interfered in politics/government. However, periodic allegations have arisen that the ruling party has used the military to serve the party's immediate political interests. For example, in the last election in 2001, the AL claimed that the military had exercised a political bias against them in the discharge of their duties during the campaign and election. But no concrete proof to support this charge has been forthcoming.

Every citizen is entitled to own property individually as well as in association with others. The state enforces property rights and contracts, and laws protect citizens from unjust deprivation of property. However, in practice the right is constrained for minority groups, the poor, women, and those exposed to illegal actions by people enjoying political patronage or with sufficient financial and coercive power at their disposal to influence administrative and judicial decisions and to intimidate those vulnerable groups.

Recommendations

  • The government should take immediate steps to separate the judiciary from the executive branch of the government and enact measures that will insulate the judiciary from partisan political influence.
  • Training of judicial as well as law enforcement agencies should stress professional standards and human rights norms.
  • The government should initiate a process of dialogue with all political parties to eliminate armed cadres and criminal elements from the ranks of the parties.
  • A public judicial enquiry should be initiated into the extrajudicial crossfire deaths of detainees under RAB custody. RAB should be abolished.

Anticorruption and Transparency – 2.64

In 2004, Transparency International (TI)'s Corruption Perceptions Index listed Bangladesh as the most corrupt country of those surveyed, a notoriety the country has earned every year since 2001.29 The TI report called for the establishment of a truly independent anticorruption commission (ACC). On February 17, 2004, the parliament passed an anticorruption commission bill. In May 2004, the government set up a search body to select members of the proposed commission. [Editor's note: In December 2004 three members of the ACC were appointed.30]

Combating corruption was a major campaign theme of the ruling coalition government. However, since assuming office in 2001, it has done very little besides establishing the ACC, and this was mostly due to donor pressure. The state is encumbered by unnecessary bureaucratic regulations, registration requirements, and other controls. The government has not taken any measure that would require public officials to make financial disclosures of their assets for public and media scrutiny. Nor are there clear rules or standards to protect against conflicts of interest in the private sector.

Public and private sector officials work in an environment that does little to prevent or punish use of official position to pursue personal interests. Indeed over the years, using official positions to seek personal gains has become the norm rather than the exception. While all agencies of the government have become corrupt, according to the TI surveys, tax administration and the law enforcement agencies are particularly noteworthy. No effective internal audit system exists to ensure the accountability of tax collection. An office of the auditor-general regularly reports to parliament on inappropriate use of public funds, but little action is taken against public officials pursuant to these reports.

Allegations of corruption receive wide and extensive airing in the news media, but the allegations are rarely investigated or prosecuted without prejudice.31 The government generally does not move to file anticorruption cases against high-ranking members of the government or the ruling party. However, one corruption case that drew major media publicity in 2004 involved a high court judge accused of taking bribes and fixing bail. For the first time in the country's history, such a case was referred to the Supreme Judicial Council. After the council's report the judge was removed by the president on April 24, 2004.32

Over the last decade, the government has increasingly used anticorruption laws to pursue partisan interests. High-profile corruption cases have been lodged against members of the political opposition for actions taken during their tenure in office; these cases have been dropped when the same opposition came to power after winning an election. The legal system is not conducive to independent investigation and prosecution nor does it protect anticorruption activists.

Lack of governmental transparency has contributed to corruption. No freedom of information law entitles citizens to access to government information. Some information, particularly information relating to the budget and expenditures, is increasingly available to citizens, often through government Web sites. However, ordinary citizens still have difficulty obtaining navigating the system. The government is particularly responsive to international donor sentiments and provides an enabling environment for the legal administration and distribution of foreign assistance. However, the government has not been transparent in ensuring open bidding or effective competition in the awarding of government contracts. Partisan considerations and corruption have reportedly influenced such awards.

Recommendations

  • The state should investigate and prosecute high-ranking government and ruling party officials for corruption when charges are leveled against them.
  • The government should strengthen and empower the anticorruption commission to function independently.
  • The government should enact and implement a freedom of information act.
  • The state should remove unnecessary bureaucratic regulations, registration requirements, and other controls that can be used by public officials to extract bribes.

Notes

1 "Bangladesh Electoral System: FPTP" (Stockholm: International IDEA, 18 April 2005), http://www.idea.int/vt/country_view.cfm?CountryCode=BD.

2 Shakhawat Liton and Shimeen Mahmud, "The Chief Advisor Should be Appointed Through Consensus," The Daily Star, 14 January 2005.

3 Shahnaz Parveen, "The Year of Living Dangerously," The Daily Star, 1 January 2005.

4 "Observers Tell of Massive Rigging" and Star Report, "An (S)Election It Really Was," The Daily Star, 2 July 2004.

5 "High Court Order Was Violated Says EC," The Daily Star, 2 July 2004.

6 "Donors Concerned at Politically Linked Violence," The Daily Star, 9 May 2004.

7 Rounaq Jahan, "Why Are We Still Continuing with a Viceregal Political System," The Daily Star, 14 January 2003.

8 "Ban on Ahmadiyya Books Infringement of Rights," The Daily Star, 10 January 2004.

9 Shahanaz Parveen, "The Year of Living Dangerously," The Daily Star, 1 January 2005; "Ahmadiyya Complex Capture Plan Foiled," The Daily Star, 28 August 2004.

10 "Mass Arrests Challenged," The Daily Star, 28 April 2004.

11 "Proshika Chief Qazi Faruque Arrested," The Daily Star, 23 May 2004; "Proshika Boss Charged with Sedition," The Daily Star, 21 June 2004; Mustafa Zaman, "Proshika: A Case Gone Sour," Star Weekend Magazine, 14 May 2004.

12 Zayadul Ahsan and Shamim Ashraf, "Long List of Violence as Cross Fire Crosses Line," The Daily Star, 1 January 2005.

13 "238 Killed in Hands of Law Enforcers Last Year," The Daily Star, 1 January 2005.

14 Ibid.

15 Sylhet, "Blast at Shahjalal Shrine Injures British HC, Kills 2," The Daily Star, 22 May 2004.

16 Sylhet, "Car Bomb Kills Sylhet AL Leader, Mayor Unhurt," The Daily Star, 8 August 2004.

17 "Assassination Attempt on Hasina," The Daily Star, 22 August 2004.

18 "238 Killed in Hands of Law Enforcers Last Year," The Daily Star, 1 January 2005.

19 Eliza Griswold, "The Next Islamist Revolution?" the New York Times Magazine, Bangladesh Media monitoring for 1/24/2005. World Bank Group Media Monitoring.

20 "BNP Men Attack B Chy, Cops Join to Foil Rally," The Daily Star, 12 March 2004.

21 "Rights Activists File Writ Against 14th Amendment," The Daily Star, 21 June 2004.

22 Trafficking in Persons Report (Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of State, June 2003), http://www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2004/.

23 Ibid.

24 "6 Steps Suggested to Curb Crime," The Daily Star, 28 June 2004.

25 Shahiduzzaman, "Judiciary Blues," New Age, New Year Special, January 2005.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid.

29 Shahiduzzaman, "Judiciary Blues," New Age, January 2005.

30 "Search Body Formed for Anti-Graft Commission," The Daily Star, 10 May 2004.

31 "Govt Obliged to Protect People from Criminals," The Daily Star, 10 May 2004.

32 Shahiduzzaman, "Judiciary Blues," New Age, January 2005.

Copyright notice: © Freedom House, Inc. · All Rights Reserved

Search Refworld

Countries