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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Bangladesh

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1996
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Bangladesh, 30 January 1996, available at: [accessed 31 May 2016]
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.


Bangladesh is a parliamentary democracy headed by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Opposition parties include the Awami League, the Jatiyo Party, the Jamaat-E-Islami, and several smaller parties. The opposition began a boycott of Parliament in March 1994; opposition members resigned from Parliament en masse in December 1994. Throughout 1995 the opposition demanded that the Government establish a caretaker government to conduct national elections, which were scheduled to be held in early 1996.

The Home Affairs Ministry controls the police and paramilitary forces, which bear primary responsibility for maintaining internal security. The army and paramilitary forces are responsible for security in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), where a tribal force has waged a low-level insurgency for 20 years. A cease-fire between government forces and insurgents generally held throughout the year, although each side accused the other of extensive violations. Some police officers committed a number of serious human rights abuses.

Bangladesh is a poor country. Annual per capita income is approximately $210; about 40 percent of the country's 119 million people exist on incomes insufficient to meet minimum daily needs. Sixty percent of the work force is involved in farming, which accounts for approximately 40 percent of the gross domestic product. There is a small industrial sector, based largely on the manufacture of garments and jute. Efforts to reform the economy have been hampered by political stalemate, public sector enterprises, and other entrenched interests.

The Government continues to restrict or deny many fundamental rights. It continues to use national security laws to detain political opponents and other citizens without formal charge. Police routinely use torture and other forms of mistreatment in interrogating suspects. More than 100 detainees died in police custody. The Government rarely convicts and punishes those responsible for torture or causing unlawful deaths. A large case backlog slows the judicial process. The Government places some limitations on freedom of assembly. Women, minorities, the disabled, and indigenous people face societal discrimination. Violence against women remains a serious problem, as does abuse of children. The Government continues to limit workers' rights.

Respect for Human Rights

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

According to government figures, 101 persons died while in custody in the first 9 months of 1995. Government records indicated that post mortems were performed in all cases, and with one exception, there was no evidence reported that any prisoner died from mistreatment. However, numerous press and human rights reports concerning police abuse and deaths of prisoners indicate that this claim is inaccurate and masks serious abuse. In the one possible case of death by police mistreatment reported by the Government, the Government indicated that the five police officials in question were suspended and charged in connection with the death. Police brutality appears to occur regularly, and government inaction allows it to continue. For example, in August a 14-year-old girl travelled by bus to the northern town of Dinajpur and was allegedly raped and beaten to death by police from whom she had hitched a ride. The Home Ministry issued a press note claiming that she died after jumping from the police vehicle. Large demonstrations took place in Dinajpur in which police killed seven people; several hundred demonstrators were reportedly injured. Public wrath over the Government's handling of the incident eventually caused the Government to transfer the entire police force out of Dinajpur, suspend the three officers accused in the case and the district Superintendent of Police, and set up judicial committee to investigate the girl's death. Partly at the recommendation of the committee, whose report has not been made public, the three officers were eventually dismissed from their jobs. Nonetheless, a climate of police impunity from punishment remains a serious obstacle to ending torture and abuse, and the killings that result from them.

Violence, often resulting in killings, is a feature of the political process. Demonstrators from all parties, and even within parties, often clash with police and with each other during rallies and demonstrations. Between January and October, violence among student political groups reportedly resulted in 10 deaths, hundreds of injuries, and the closure of dozens of educational institutions. In December armed violence between rival student groups at Bangladesh Agricultural University in Mymensingh led to four deaths. Clashes between police and student activists at Chittagong Medical College in December led to the arrest of 84 students and the indefinite closure of the college.

In March farmers and some students, primarily in the north-central part of the country, rioted over the shortage and high price of fertilizer during the peak of the rice cultivation season. Farmers in at least two areas attempted to loot government stocks. At least 19 persons were killed when police opened fire on rioters.

In June the Government charged former President Mohammed Ershad with ordering the 1981 murder of the alleged assassin of President Zia. Ershad had already been serving a 20-year sentence for corruption (see Section 1.c.).

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Although the Constitution prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment, police routinely employ psychological and physical torture and other abuse during arrests and interrogations. Torture may consist of threats, beatings, and, occasionally, the use of electric shock. In April, two boys (ages 7 and 8) were detained by police and beaten and given electrical shocks in an effort to extract confessions regarding the supposed theft of a pistol. The Government rarely convicts and punishes those responsible for torture, and a climate of impunity allows such police abuses to continue.

Most prisons are overcrowded and lack adequate facilities. There are three classes of cells: A, B, and C. Common criminals and low-level political workers are generally held in C cells which often have dirt floors, no furnishings, and poor quality food. The use of restraining devices on prisoners in these cells is common. Prisoners in the C cells reportedly suffer the worst abuses, including beatings or being forced to kneel for long periods. Conditions in B and A cells are markedly better; A cells are reserved for prominent prisoners (former President Ershad's cell is reportedly equipped with facilities beyond those available in other A cells). A government-appointed committee of private citizens monitors prisons monthly but does not release its findings.

Former President Ershad is serving a 20-year sentence for conviction on two corruption charges; he has 14 other corruption charges pending against him in court. He was also charged during 1995 with the 1981 murder of the alleged assassin of President Zia (see Section 1.a.). In 1992 Ershad's supporters filed a writ of habeas corpus in the Supreme Court asserting that his living conditions were inhumane and that he has been denied proper medical care. Ershad's treatment and condition came under particular scrutiny in November when he was diagnosed with jaundice. The Government appointed a five-member medical board to examine Ershad and monitor his health. Following visits to the jail, Ershad family members, who claimed that they had been denied proper visitation rights, alleged that the former President's treatment was inadequate and that he required full hospitalization. The medical board recommended that Ershad be transferred to a city hospital. Citing security concerns, the Government kept Ershad in prison. Raushan Ershad, the ex-President's wife, undertook a 8-day hunger strike to press for his transfer. Toward the end of the year Ershad's health had improved, but he is reportedly recovering slowly.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Government continued to use national security legislation, namely the Special Powers Act (SPA) of 1974, to detain citizens without formal charges. There was discussion among politicians and Members of Parliament about repealing the Special Powers Act, but no action has been taken.

Under the SPA, the Government may detain anyone deemed "a threat to the security of the country" for 30 days. At the end of that time, it must either charge or release the detainee. In practice, detainees are sometimes held for longer periods without charge. If the Government files charges, detainees have 15 days to appeal the detention order to the Home Ministry, which may grant early release.

After 6 months, a review panel composed of two High Court judges selected by the Law Ministry examines cases of detainees. If the Government adequately defends its detention order, the detainee remains imprisoned; if not, the detainee is released. Detainees are allowed to consult with lawyers while in detention, although usually not until a charge is filed. Detainees may receive visitors, and incommunicado detention is not practiced.

From January thru September, the authorities detained 2,371 persons under the SPA. As of October, the courts had ordered 1,918 detainees released. Government figures indicate that 1,417 persons were in detention under the SPA at the end of September.

The Government allowed another widely used statute, the Anti-Terrorism Act, to expire in November 1994, leaving 489 cases pending. During the year, 37 of the pending cases came to trial.

In July police detained writer Farhad Mazhar under the SPA (see Section 2.a.).

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The judiciary displays a high degree of independence, as mandated by the Constitution, especially at the higher levels. The judiciary often rules against the Government in criminal, civil, and even politically controversial cases. In one politically sensitive case, an Appellate Court in June ruled in favor of former President Ershad's appeal of a 1991 conviction of illegally possessing a firearm (a 9mm pistol given to him by Saddam Hussain) without a license.

The court system has two levels, the lower court and the Supreme Court. Both hear civil and criminal cases. The lower court consists of magistrates, who are part of the administrative branch of government, and session judges, who belong to the judicial branch. The Supreme Court is divided into two sections, the High Court and the Appellate Court. The High Court hears original cases and also reviews cases from the lower court. The Appellate Court has jurisdiction to hear appeals of judgments, decrees, orders, or sentences of the High Court. Rulings of the Appellate Court are binding on all other courts.

Trials are public. The law provides the accused with the right to be represented by counsel, to review accusatory material, to call witnesses, and to appeal verdicts. In practice, the largely rural, illiterate population does not always understand these rights, nor do the authorities always respect them. There is a system of bail. However, if bail is not granted, the law does not specify a time limit on pretrial detention. State-funded defense attorneys are provided in only a limited number of cases, and there are few legal aid programs to offer financial assistance.

There is corruption within the legal process. Small sums must be paid to a number of court officials in order for a civil suit to be filed. While these may appear to be processing fees, they are more in the nature of bribes; they are not established by statute or regulation, are paid to officials personally, and there is no accountability for failure to discharge duties paid for. Defendants can sometimes pay to avoid being served with a notice or suit. Because of the difficulty accessing the courts and because litigation is time-consuming, alternate dispute resolution by traditional village leaders is popular in rural communities.

The largest problem of the court system is the overwhelming backlog of cases. As of October, close to 500,000 cases were pending in criminal and metropolitan courts, and more than 25,000 people, or almost 60 percent of the country's total prison caseload, were awaiting trial. Government records show that the period between detention and trial averages 23 weeks, but reports by the press and human rights groups indicate that delays of several years are not unusual.

Although the Government claims that it holds no political prisoners, it has arrested some opponents under the SPA for political reasons (see Section 2.a.).

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The law requires authorities to obtain a judicial warrant before entering a home. However, human rights monitors assert that the police rarely obtain warrants, and officers violating the procedure are not punished. In addition, the SPA permits searches without a warrant. Some opposition members and CHT tribal leaders maintain that the intelligence services illegally monitor their telephones and mail.

g. Use of Excessive Force and Violations of Humanitarian Law in Internal Conflicts

The Shanti Bahini, a tribal group, has waged a low-level conflict in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) since the early 1970's to deter Bengali settlers who seek to exploit the Tracts' fertile and sparsely populated land. Government settlement programs increased the number of Bengali inhabitants in the CHT from 3 percent of the region's total population in 1947 to an estimated 48 percent in 1995. Although the Government prohibits further settlement of the area except for the purpose of starting a business, such as rubber planting, citizens from the flatlands continue to move in.

All sides--indigenous tribes, settlers, and security forces--have accused each other of human rights violations. It is difficult to verify facts in specific incidents because government travel restrictions, tight security, difficult terrain, and unsafe conditions created by the insurgency limit access to the area.

In late 1993, violence erupted in the remote town of Naniarchar when a tribal group demonstrated for removal of a security checkpoint. A group of Bengali settlers reportedly attacked the demonstrators and other persons in the town and looted and burned tribal homes. At least 27 people were killed and 100 injured before the police and army restored order. A government commission which investigated the violence has not issued an official finding.

There was at least one major violent incident in the CHT in 1995. In March a clash erupted between the Hill Students Council, a group representing indigenous Marma students, and a non-tribal group, and later police, in Bandarban. Reports from the area claimed that at least 50 people on all sides were injured, and several hundred houses destroyed by fire. There were unconfirmed reports of two deaths. The Government appointed a committee to investigate the incident, but no report had been issued by year's end.

The Government continued talks with Shanti Bahini's political wing, the Jana Sanghati Samiti (JSS), and the two sides agreed at short, regular intervals to extend their cease-fire, the latest until March 31, 1996, when talks between the two groups were scheduled to resume. The Government also extended the amnesty for insurgents as long as the dialogue with the Shanti Bahini continues.

Few Chakma tribal members who had fled the conflict in the CHT and sought shelter in refugee camps in India returned to Bangladesh in 1995. Officially there was no repatriation during 1995, in part because the Shanti Bahini allegedly discouraged refugees from repatriating; however, government officials note that some refugees returned voluntarily and have been assisted in their resettlement. Some organizations based in the Hill Tracts continue to assert that conditions were not suitable for repatriation because of government repression.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech, expression, and the press, subject to "reasonable restrictions" in the interest of security, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency, or morality, or to prohibit defamation or incitement to an offense. With some exceptions--a principal one being perceived criticism of Islam--the Government generally respects freedom of speech.

There are frequent public rallies and speeches in opposition to government policies. Opposition political parties have continued to use public rallies as the main venue to express their views after they walked out of the Parliament in early 1994.

Newspaper ownership and content are not subject to government restriction. The press, numbering hundreds of daily and weekly publications, is a forum for a wide range of views.

The Government seeks to influence newspapers by the placement of advertising. Some editors complain that the Government's placement of advertising to reward supporters and to punish critical newspapers leads to self-censorship.

The Government now allows the import of newsprint, but most newspapers still rely on the cheaper, subsidized product from the country's one newsprint mill, which is government-owned. Although the Government claims that it allocates newsprint according to a paper's circulation, some newspaper owners allege that progovernment papers receive preference in the setting of distribution quotas.

Foreign publications are subject to censorship. While there has been no official banning of foreign books this year, at least one English-language book has been kept from circulation. The Government banned a September issue of Time magazine and censored a December issue of Newsweek because they contained allegedly obscene photographs. In November the Government banned a book entitled "Woman" that allegedly offended religious beliefs. The book, written by a professor at Dhaka University, had been in circulation since 1992. The circulation of about 10 local books has been prohibited because of their perceived misrepresentation of Islam.

In June three editors of the daily Janakantha, arrested in 1994 for printing a satirical fable mocking Islamic clerics who misinterpret the Koran, were formally charged with attacking religious sentiments. Their appeal to the High Court is pending.

In July officers of the police Special Branch invoked the Special Powers Act to detain Farhad Mazhar, chairman of the Board of Editors of the weekly Bangla periodical Chinta. The Government was reportedly unhappy with a series of articles about the December 1994 Ansar Mutiny, a highly-publicized protest in the main Dhaka garrison of the Ansars, a para-military security force. Mazhar spent 28 days in prison before the High Court declared his detention illegal. Four journalists arrested in October for defamation in connection with corruption charges made against a local official were released on bail later that month.

In September a government minister filed a defamation suit against three newspaper editors for publishing a statement against him from one of the leaders of his own party. The court issued warrants for their arrest; in the subsequent hearing, the three editors were granted bail.

Feminist author Taslima Nasreen, whose writings and statements provoked death threats from some Islamic groups in 1993 and 1994, did not return to Bangladesh following her departure for Europe in August 1994. The Government charged Nasreen under a section of the Penal Code which stipulates punishment for anyone convicted of intentionally insulting religious beliefs. The High Court ruled in January that the Government must provide a special authorization to bring charges against Nasreen because her alleged acts took place in a foreign country. The Government opted to pursue the case in spite of several opportunities during the year to let it drop. In a subsequent hearing, the High Court granted the Government authorization to proceed with the case and ordered the trial, which has been postponed several times already this year, to proceed. Although the case was scheduled to resume in October, a series of legal maneuvers and postponements have continued to stall proceedings. The next hearing in the case is currently scheduled for early 1996. Nasreen may be tried in absentia. The Government has taken no action against those who issued death threats against Nasreen, even though such threats also violate the law.

The Government owns and controls radio and television, which provide more extensive and favorable coverage of the Government than of the opposition. One legal rights group filed a case with the High Court seeking permission to operate independent television stations.

The availability of Cable News Network and the British Broadcasting Corporation's international news and features, rebroadcast for several hours a day on government television, has considerably increased the public's access to international news. There are no restrictions on installation of satellite dishes, so some citizens have increased access to foreign media and entertainment.

The Government's film censor board continues to exercise control over films. Three films, all produced locally, have been banned this year, primarily for alleged distortions of the National Independence Movement. In general, academic freedom is respected. However, research on sensitive topics, which may be perceived to be injurious to religious sentiments or traditional social customs, is not encouraged. Similarly, studies relating to bureaucracy and the military need special permission from the Government. Permission to pursue such research may not be formally denied, but researchers may find access to appropriate materials and sources extremely difficult. In a few cases, the published work may be banned.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for the right of every citizen to form associations, subject to "reasonable restrictions" in the interest of morality or public order and in general this right is respected. In practice, individuals are free to join private groups, but a local magistrate must approve public meetings. Occasionally, the Government prohibits rallies for security reasons.

The Government frequently, however, interferes with opposition rallies and public meetings. Government officials also often cite a statute which allows public assemblies to be prohibited--to prevent possible violence--if two or more parties have scheduled rallies for the same time and place. Opposition leaders claim that the ruling party, after learning of planned opposition public gatherings, schedules other rallies for the same time and place. Government authorities then cancel both events, effectively thwarting the opposition's right to public assembly.

The Government and the opposition in October 1994 entered into a political dialogue in which one agenda item was agreement on a code of conduct that would address issues such as public assemblies. The dialogue failed when the opposition refused to compromise on its demand for a caretaker government to supervise the next national elections; there was no further progress on the issue in 1995.

c. Freedom of Religion

Approximately 90 percent of Bangladesh's 119 million people are Muslim. The Constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but also stipulates the right to practice the religion of one's choice. However, some members of the Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist minorities continue to perceive and experience discrimination toward them from the majority community (see Section 5).

The law permits citizens to proselytize. However, strong social resistance to conversion from Islam means that many of the missionary efforts by non-Muslims are aimed at Hindus and tribal groups. The Government allows various religions to establish places of worship, train clergy, travel for religious purposes, and maintain links with coreligionists abroad. Foreign missionaries may work in Bangladesh, but their right to proselytize is not protected by the Constitution. Some missionaries have encountered difficulties in obtaining residence permits or reentry visas.

d. Freedom of Movement within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

Citizens are able to move freely within the country. Travel by foreigners is restricted in the CHT and some other border areas. Citizens are generally free to travel abroad and emigrate. The right of repatriation is observed.

Approximately 250,000 Rohingyas (Muslims from Burma's Arakan Province) crossed into southeastern Bangladesh in late 1991 and early 1992, fleeing repression. Approximately 51,000 Rohingyas remain in 6 camps in the area of Cox's Bazar. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Government were able to intercede in specific cases to avoid forced repatriation by Bangladeshi authorities. Efforts to repatriate the refugees slowed over the summer because Burmese authorities issued a limited number of clearances. The UNHCR estimates that the majority of the remaining refugees will repatriate in 1996.

There are about 238,000 non-Bengali Muslims, known as Biharis, who have remained in Bangladesh since 1971 awaiting settlement in Pakistan (see Pakistan report).

Bangladesh is not a party to the 1951 United Nations convention and its 1967 protocol relating to the status of refugees. However, the Government generally cooperates with the UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees, such as the Rohingyas. Occasional abuses such as the forced return or mistreatment of individual refugees have been reported, but these appear to be the exception rather than the rule.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Bangladesh is a multiparty, parliamentary democracy in which elections by secret ballot are held on the basis of universal suffrage. Members of Parliament (M.P.'s) are elected at least every 5 years. The Parliament has 300 elected members, with 30 additional seats reserved for women who are chosen by Parliament.

The last national elections were held in 1991 after the fall of the Government of H.M. Ershad. The BNP won a plurality of seats. It cooperated with the Jamaat-E-Islami Party to elect enough female legislators to give the BNP a slim majority and enable it to form a government. The opposition is led by Sheikh Hasina Wajed and her Awami League Party. While there are a large number of minor parties, the most significant opposition parties are the Awami League, the Jatiyo Party (former President Ershad's party), and the Jamaat-E-Islami, the major Islamic political party.

The Awami League and other opposition groups charged the BNP with intimidation and vote-rigging in a parliamentary by-election in March 1994 in the district of Magura, which the BNP won. They began a boycott of Parliament and have tried, thus far unsuccessfully, to force the Government to resign in favor of a caretaker government, which would oversee new elections. The opposition Members of Parliament resigned en masse on December 28, 1994. In June 143 opposition members formally lost their seats; the Constitution mandates that parliamentarians absent for 90 working days must surrender their seats. Parliament now consists largely of one party, the ruling BNP.

In addition to the 30 parliamentary seats reserved for women (whose occupants are chosen by Parliament), women are free to contest any seat in Parliament. Some women were elected in their own right in the last national election, making for a total of 35 women M.P.'s before the boycott and resignation of major opposition party members.

While seats are not specifically reserved for them, other minority groups, such as tribal peoples, are represented in the legislature. Prior to the opposition's resignation, there were 12 members from minority groups in the 330-seat Parliament.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

The Government generally permits human rights groups to conduct their activities. In 1995 such groups published reports, held press conferences, and issued appeals to the Government with regard to specific cases.

The Government is sensitive to international opinion regarding human rights issues. It sought to defend its handling of the Taslima Nasreen case but was open to dialogue with international organizations and foreign diplomatic missions.

The Government has put pressure on individual human rights advocates. Although the Government issued a reentry visa in April to Father Richard Timm, a Catholic priest and human rights advocate who has worked in Bangladesh for over 40 years, the process took more than a year and the visa was valid for only 3 months. Father Timm reapplied for an extension in July, and in November received a 6-month visa, which can be renewed. In a similar case, after more than a year of deliberation, the Government granted a similar 6-month visa to Father Eugene Homrich, a long-time resident American priest, who has worked for many years in the Madhupur Forest region with the Garos, a minority group.

The Government refused to register the Bangladesh Human Rights Commission's Treatment Center for Trauma Victims, making it impossible for the Center to receive funds from foreign donor organizations. Many representatives of local human rights groups were physically attacked by religious extremists who considered their activities "un-Islamic." The Government failed to bring to justice those who engaged in such violence.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution states that "all citizens are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection by the law." In practice, laws aimed at eliminating discrimination are not strongly enforced. In this context, women, children, minority groups, and the disabled often confront social and economic disadvantages.


Violence against women is difficult to quantify because of unreliable statistics, but wife beating appears to be widespread. The Government allows programs that document and counter domestic violence. In 1995 human rights groups and the press reported many incidents of violence against women, in only some of which the perpetrators were reportedly prosecuted. In villages, vigilante groups, sometimes led by religious leaders, meted out humiliating, painful punishments, including whipping, to women accused of moral offenses. The Government has enacted laws specifically prohibiting certain forms of discrimination against women, including the Antidowry Prohibition Act of 1980 and the Cruelty to Women Law of 1983. Enforcement of these laws is weak, however, especially in rural areas. The Government seldom prosecutes vigorously those cases that are filed. A new law, the Women Repression Law, was enacted in August but has been greeted with skepticism by women's groups, which argue that enforcement of existing laws rather than the promulgation of new ones should be the priority. Government records through September indicate that 78 persons were arrested under the Women Repression Law.

Although there has been slow improvement over the last few years, women remain in a subordinate position in society, and the Government has not acted to protect their basic freedoms. Only 20 percent of women are literate, compared to 35 to 40 percent of the general population. In rural areas, only 30 percent of primary school students are female; less than 25 percent at the secondary level, and below 15 percent at the college and university level. Women are often unaware of their rights, owing to high illiteracy rates and unequal educational opportunities. Strong social stigmas and lack of economic means to obtain legal assistance frequently keep women from seeking redress in the courts.

According to the 1961 Muslim Family Ordinance, female heirs receive less inheritance than male heirs, and wives are more restricted in divorce rights. Men are permitted to have up to four wives. Laws provide some protection for women against arbitrary divorce and the taking of additional wives by husbands without the first wife's consent, but the protections generally apply only to registered marriages. Marriages in the countryside are often not registered because of the high fees.

While employment opportunities have been stronger for women than for men in the past few years, this is almost entirely due to the growth of the garment industry, in which female workers are prevalent. Women still occupy only a small fraction of other wage-earning jobs, and hold fewer than 5 percent of government jobs. The Government's policy to include more women in government jobs has had limited effect.


The Government undertakes programs in the areas of primary education, health, family planning, and nutrition. The Government made universal primary education mandatory in 1991, but stated that it could not fully implement the law because of a lack of resources. Little progress was made in 1995. The Government has also initiated programs that offer incentives for girls to remain in school.

Human rights monitors continue to report that many children have been abandoned, kidnaped, sold into bondage, and employed as prostitutes. One human rights group claims that there are about 29,000 child prostitutes. The law does not allow anyone under age 18 to engage in prostitution and stipulates a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for persons found guilty of forcing a child into prostitution. However, procurers of minors are rarely prosecuted. Prostitution is legal for those over 18 with government certification.

International trafficking in both women and children, primarily to the Middle East, India, Pakistan, and Southeast Asia, is difficult to quantify but appears to be extensive. Twelve victims of a child-smuggling ring, ranging in age from 6 to 12 and allegedly enroute to Dubai to work as jockeys in camel racing, were repatriated from India in October. The Government has expressed concern about the problem and has been working with U.N. agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) to seek ways to combat it.

People with Disabilities

The laws provide for equal treatment and freedom from discrimination for the disabled, but they often confront social and economic disadvantages. The Government has not enacted specific legislation or otherwise mandated accessibility for the disabled.

Indigenous People

Tribal peoples, especially in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, have a marginal ability to influence decisions concerning the use of their lands. Until 1985 the Government regularly parceled out land in the Chittagong Hill Tracts to Bengali settlers.

The Government has moved toward granting the tribal peoples more authority in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. In July 1991, tribal-dominated local government councils assumed control over primary education, health, family welfare and the agricultural extension service, although the real extent of their autonomy remains unclear. However, government security forces continue to control law and order as well as land use (see Section 1.g.).

Tribal peoples in other areas have also reported loss of land to Bengali Muslims through questionable legal practices and other means. For example, the Garo, who live in the Madhapur Forest region in north central Bangladesh, have encountered problems in maintaining their cultural traditions and livelihoods in the face of reforestation projects. Human rights monitors in the region claim that the Garos are being harassed and intimidated into leaving their homes to make way for government-run, internationally financed projects.

Religious Minorities

Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists make up an estimated 10 percent of the population. Although the Government is secular, religion exerts a powerful influence on politics. The Government is sensitive to the Muslim consciousness of the majority of its citizens and has sought the political support of the Jamaat-E-Islami, the country's largest Islamic political party.

In scattered incidents throughout the country, Islamic extremists violently attacked women, religious minorities, and development workers. The Government generally failed to denounce, investigate, and prosecute perpetrators of these attacks.

Among the most serious attacks were those carried out against NGO's accused of conducting anti-Islamic activities. Some of the violence against NGO's was prompted when Islamic religious leaders claimed that NGO's denigrated Islam and coerced Muslims to convert to Christianity.

Religious minorities are in practice disadvantaged in such areas as access to government jobs and political office. Selection boards in the government services are often without minority group representation.

Property ownership, particularly among Hindus, has been a contentious issue since independence, when many Hindus lost landholdings because of anti-Hindu discrimination in the application of the law. Reported cases of violence directed against religious minority communities have also resulted in the loss of property most recently in December 1992 after Hindus in India destroyed the Babri mosque. Such intercommunal violence has caused some members of religious minority groups to depart the country. However, there were no significant instances of intercommunal violence in 1995.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Constitution provides for freedom of association, the right to join unions, and, with government approval, the right to form a union. Approximately 1.6 million members of the country's total work force of about 45 to 50 million workers belong to unions. Only about 3 million workers are involved in the formal industrial sector. There is a large unreported informal sector, regarding which no reliable labor statistics exist. While a very small proportion of the labor force is unionized, unions are very strong in certain sectors such as jute, textiles, and transportation. Unions in these industries have been able on occasion to win government concessions on wages and other demands.

For a union to obtain and maintain its registration, 30 percent employee participation in the workplace is required. However, would-be unionists are technically forbidden to engage in any labor "activities" prior to registration. Labor activists have protested that this requirement severely restricts workers' freedom to associate and organize.

With the exception of workers in the railway, postal, telegraph and telephone departments, government civil servants are forbidden to join unions. This ban also applies to security-related government employees such as the military and police. Bangladesh civil servants forbidden to join unions, such as teachers and nurses, have formed associations that perform functions similar to labor unions, that is, providing for members' welfare, offering legal services, and airing grievances. Collective bargaining, however, is prohibited. Some workers have formed unregistered unions, particularly university employees and workers in the construction and transport (both public and private) industries.

A small number of workers in the export processing zones (EPZ's) have also skirted prohibitions on forming unions by setting up associations. In the burgeoning garment industry there have been numerous complaints of workers being harassed and fired in some factories for trying to organize unions.

Ten to 15 percent of Bangladesh's approximately 4,200 labor unions are affiliated with 23 officially registered National Trade Union (NTU) centers (there are also several unregistered NTU's). There are no legal restrictions on political activities by labor unions. However, the calling of nationwide general strikes or transportation blockades by unions is considered a criminal rather than a political act and is thus forbidden. Some unions complained that the Government used its Antiterrorism Law as a means to suppress both opposition political workers and union members rather than bona fide terrorists. In November 1994, however, the Antiterrorism Law lapsed and the Government decided not to renew it--no arrests of labor leaders under the Antiterrorism Law had been made since 1993.

While unions are not part of the government structure, they are highly politicized. Virtually all NTU centers are affiliated with political parties, including one with the ruling BNP. Some unions are militant and engage in intimidation and vandalism. Illegal blockades of public transportation routes by strikers occurred several times during the year, with scattered and sometimes serious violence. The worst such case occurred in February, when clashes between striking jute and textile workers and police left several strikers dead. Pitched battles between members of rival labor unions occur regularly; hundreds were injured (and at least two combatants died) in 1995 in various large jute and textile mills, as well as in the inland water transport sector. Fighting sometimes concerns control of rackets or extortion payoffs, and typically involves knives, guns, and homemade bombs.

Workers are eligible for membership on their unions' executive staff, the size of which is set by law in proportion to the number of union members. Registration of a union may only be canceled by the Registrar of Trade Unions with the concurrence of the Labor Court, but no such actions were known to have been taken this year. Several cases were filed, invariably by employers claiming that a union's membership had fallen below the requisite threshhold, but because of a backlog and other administrative problems, these cases have not yet been adjudicated. There are no restrictions on affiliation with international labor organizations, and unions and federations maintain a variety of such links. Trade unionists are required to obtain government clearance to travel to International Labor Organization (ILO) meetings, but no denials of clearances were reported.

The right to strike is not specifically recognized in the law, but strikes are a common form of protest. The most prominent recent strikes were called by Inland Water Transport employees claiming that they were not receiving the required minimum wage, and by jute and textile workers seeking increased wages and benefits along with guarantees against future privatization and retrenchment. Employees organized in professional associations or nonregistered unions also strike. In 1995, nurses, private elementary teachers, members of the nonadministrative cadre of the civil service, and the Bangladesh Medical Association (government-employed doctors) were among the striking groups. They sought better pay or benefits, a greater share of the public budget, inclusion in the public sector, or administrative reform. University teachers strike for short periods from time to time over the continuing problem of campus violence.

General strikes continue to be used by the political opposition to pressure the Government to meet its political demands, causing significant economic and social disruption through loss of work hours and production. Wildcat strikes are illegal but occur frequently, with varying government response. Wildcat strikes in the transport sector are particularly common.

The Essential Services Ordinance permits the Government to bar strikes for 3 months in any sector it declares "essential." This ban, generally obeyed, has so far been applied to national airline pilots, water supply workers, shipping operations employees and electricity supply workers. The bans tend to be renewed every 3 months. The Government is empowered to prohibit a strike or lockout at any time before or after the strike or lockout begins and to refer the dispute to the Labor Court. Mechanisms for conciliation, arbitration and Labor Court dispute resolution were established under the Industrial Relations Ordinance of 1969. Workers have the right to strike in the event of a failure to settle. If a strike lasts 30 days or longer, the Government may prohibit the strike and refer the dispute to the Labor Court for adjudication. This has not happened since 1993.

There are provisions in the Bangladesh Industrial Relations Ordinance for immunity of registered unions or union officers from civil liability. Enforcement of these provisions is uneven. In the case of illegal work actions, such as transportation blockades, police have arrested union members under either the Special Powers Act, the Antiterrorism Law (now no longer in effect), or regular criminal codes.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

Free collective bargaining is legal only for private sector workers, on condition that the workers are represented by unions legally registered as collective bargaining agents by the Registrar of Trade Unions. Collective bargaining occurs on occasion in large private enterprises such as pharmaceuticals, jute and textiles, but with unemployment in the 30 percent range, workers' concerns with job security often outweigh wage and other issues. Collective bargaining generally does not occur in small private enterprises.

Public sector workers' pay levels and other benefits are recommended by the National Pay and Wages Commission. The Commission's recommendations are binding and may not be disputed except on the issue of implementation.

Under the Industrial Relations Ordinance, there is considerable leeway for discrimination against union members and organizers by employers. For example, the Ordinance allows arbitrary transfer of workers suspected of union activities. Complaints that employers routinely engage in antiunion discrimination are particularly common in the garment industry. In practice, private sector employers tend to discourage any union activity. The Registrar of Trade Unions rules on discrimination complaints. In a number of cases the Labor Court has ordered the reinstatement of workers fired for union activities. However, the Court's overall effectiveness is hampered by a serious case backlog, and there have also been allegations that some of its deliberations have been corrupted by employers.

Current law prohibits professional and industry-based unions in Bangladesh's two Export Processing Zones (EPZ's). In addition to the prohibition on unions, no collective bargaining takes place in the EPZ's. Although no action has so far been taken, the Government has stated that restrictions on unions in the EPZ's will be lifted by 1997.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution prohibits forced or compulsory labor. The Factories Act and the Shops and Establishment Act, both passed in 1965, set up inspection mechanisms to enforce laws against forced labor. These laws are not rigorously enforced, partly because resources for enforcement are few. While Bangladesh does not experience large-scale bonded labor, there is forced labor to the extent that workers are often required to work later than stipulated by law, with no special compensation. This is a notable problem in the garment industry, for example, which operates in high-volume, short-deadline modes of production.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The law prohibits labor by children. The Factories Act of 1965 bars children under age 14 from working in factories. This law also stipulates that young workers (that is, children and adolescents) are allowed to work only a maximum 5-hour day and only between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.

In reality, enforcement of these rules is inadequate. According to a 1990 labor force survey by the Bureau of Statistics, the country has 5.7 million working children 10 to 14 years of age. United Nations estimates are that about one-third of Bangladesh's population under the age of 18--the child labor definition is 14--is engaged in some type of formal or informal employment. Children are commonly seen driving rickshaws, breaking bricks at construction sites, carrying fruits, vegetables, and dry goods for shoppers at markets, and working at tea stalls. They are found as peelers, packers, and beach combers in the shrimp industry, and work side-by-side with other family members in small-scale and subsistence agriculture. Children also routinely perform domestic work. Cases of children being physically abused and occasionally killed by the head of household where they work are reported in the press. Under the law, every child must attend school through the fifth grade. However, the Government continues to maintain that it does not yet have the resources to implement this law effectively.

In anticipation of possible foreign legislation prohibiting the import of products made by child labor, thousands of underage workers employed in the ready-made garment industry were fired in 1993. Many were probably rehired later by other factories or in subcontracting operations.

Concerned about a possible boycott of Bangladeshi garments by foreign child labor advocacy groups, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) pledged to make its member factories child labor-free. Protracted negotiations were held to ensure that the dismissed children were placed into schools rather than onto the streets. These talks led to the July agreement on a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the BGMEA, the U.N.'s Chidren Fund, and the ILO to eliminate child labor in the garment sector in a way that provides a safety net for dismissed children. The MOU establishes a cooperative program to identify underage workers (through surveys of the garment factories) and then to remove them from their factories and place them in new schools. The children will receive a monthly stipend to help replace their lost income. According to the MOU, qualified family members will be hired to replace child workers when possible, and children will not be replaced until surveys are complete and educational programs are in place. Completed in late October, the surveys identified some 12,000 children working in the garment sector. Preparations for opening the first schools under the MOU were well advanced by year's end.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There is no national minimum wage. Instead the Wage Commission, which convenes every several years, sets wages and benefits industry by industry. In most cases, private sector employers ignore this wage structure, arguing that low labor productivity vitiates any argument for a set wage. In 1993 the Confederation of Labor Unions (SKOP) won a minimum wage agreement for public sector factory workers that was slightly above the level recommended by the 1992 Wage Commission. According to the agreement, government factory workers receive about $24 (950 taka) a month plus benefits. Private sector wages tend to fall below the total government wage and benefits package. Organized jute and textile workers in particular have called strikes in an attempt to win wage parity for their industry's private sector workers. The average monthly wage is sufficient to support life, but is not by any means a comfortable wage for a family.

The law sets a standard 48-hour workweek with 1 day off. A 60-hour workweek, inclusive of a maximum 12 hours of overtime, is allowed. The law is poorly enforced in industries such as hosiery and ready-made garments.

The Factories Act of 1965 nominally sets occupational health and safety standards. The law is comprehensive but appears to be largely ignored by many employers. Workers may resort to legal action for enforcement of the law's provisions, but few cases are actually prosecuted. Enforcement by the Labor Ministry's industrial inspectors is weak. Due to high unemployment and inadequate enforcement of the laws, workers demanding correction of dangerous working conditions or refusing to participate in perceived dangerous activities risk losing their jobs.

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