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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Bangladesh

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1994
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Bangladesh, 30 January 1994, available at: [accessed 30 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 of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Her BNP attained a plurality of seats in the February 1991 election and reached a majority through the nomination of female members of Parliament to reserved seats. Opposition parties, including the Awami League, former President H. M. Ershad's Jatiya Party, and the Jamaat Islami, are represented in Parliament and play an active role in the political process.

The Home Affairs Ministry controls the police and paramilitary forces which bear primary responsibility for maintaining internal security. In a particularly egregious breakdown of law and order in 1993, 11 people were killed, over 200 injured, and hundreds of shops and homes destroyed when navy personnel attacked a neighborhood in Chittagong. A number of navy personnel were discharged from the service, and several were court-martialed for their role in this incident.

The army and paramilitary forces also play a significant role in maintaining security in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) where a tribal force has been waging a low-level insurgency. Due to a cease-fire, the CHT experienced fewer incidents of violence in 1993 than in 1992, although tensions remained high. In November, violence erupted in the town of Naniarchar as security forces failed to maintain order when a demonstrating tribal group was attacked, apparently by a nontribal settler group. The bloody clash left at least 27 tribals dead and almost 100 injured.

Bangladesh is one of the world's poorest countries; approximately 40 percent of the population of 118 million do not have sufficient income to meet minimum daily needs. The economy is primarily agricultural, with over 60 percent of the work force involved in farming, which represents almost 40 percent of the gross domestic product. The Government has pledged to reform the economy and to open it to market forces. However, the process of reform has been seriously hampered by resistance from those who fear losing de facto monopolies and guaranteed jobs or those who want protection from foreign competition.

There was little change in the human rights situation in 1993 from the previous year. Although less extensively than in 1992, the Government continued to use national security legislation such as the Special Powers Act to detain citizens, and in some cases political opponents, without formal charges. There were credible reports of custodial abuse and death, and those responsible generally went unpunished. Violence against women is a serious problem, but much of it is not reported and goes unpunished. Child labor is also common, with over 3 million children in the work force. There were credible reports of some forced repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Burma, and one refugee was killed by police fire in 1993.


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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

Although the January elections in Bangladesh's 89 municipalities were relatively peaceful, sporadic interparty violence resulted in 1 death and over 100 injuries. There was considerable violence involving university and secondary school students throughout the year. Much of this violence involved clashes both within and between student wings of various political parties. These incidents, which included 2 brutal gangland-style slayings, resulted in scores of injuries and at least 15 deaths in 1993.

In January, in a complete breakdown of the command and control structure, dozens of Bangladesh naval enlisted men, angered by alleged mistreatment of fellow troops by local residents, attacked a neighborhood near the Chittagong navy base. According to official sources, over 11 civilians were killed, over 200 injured, and hundreds of residential units and shops burned down. The Government's inquiry report into the incident has yet to be published, although over 20 naval personnel, including officers, were reportedly dismissed from the navy, and several have been court-martialed.

Several incidents involving shootings by security forces resulted in at least 17 deaths in 1993. In April a contingent of Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), a border security force, opened fire on a crowded cattle market and killed four persons during an attempt to confiscate cattle allegedly smuggled from India. In another incident in July, the BDR fired on a group of villagers trying to break a levee in a flooded area of Sylhet District, killing 4 and injuring 50 people. At a rail station in Dhaka in November, parapolice forces, called Ansars, shot and killed two passengers, allegedly in a dispute over payment of extortion money for goods they were transporting. There is no indication that criminal charges were brought against any of those involved in these incidents.

In 1993 human rights monitors reported at least eight deaths of prisoners in police custody. Most of those deaths occurred while accused criminals were held under police remand, the period between arrest and incarceration in one of the country's jails. The Government stated that in 1993, according to its records, no prisoners died as the result of mistreatment by police or jail authorities. The Government does not, however, routinely investigate deaths in custody. Determinations of the cause of death are often based solely on the local government medical officer's report, a practice that human rights monitors claim prevents an impartial and objective review of questionable circumstances of death. While there were reports of police transfers and suspensions pending magisterial investigations in 1993, no police were tried for abusing persons accused of crimes.

b. Disappearance

There were no confirmed reports of disappearance resulting from official actions in 1993.

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

The Constitution forbids torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment. However, police continue to employ psychological and physical torture and other abusive treatment during interrogations, which, as indicated in Section 1.a., sometimes result in death. Torture usually consists of threats and beatings and may include the use of electric shock.

Most prisons in Bangladesh are overcrowded and lack adequate facilities for prisoners. This is especially the case in class "C" cells, which generally hold common criminals and low-level political workers. They often have dirt floors, no furnishings, and poor quality food, and the use of handcuffs and fetters is common.

Prisoners in these cells reportedly suffer the most abuse, such as beatings and being forced to kneel for long periods. Conditions in "B" and "A" cells are markedly better, with the latter reserved for prominent persons. The Government reports that independent monitoring of prisons is conducted on a monthly basis by a government-appointed committee of private citizens. The committee's findings are not made public.

Supporters of former President Ershad filed a writ of habeas corpus in the Bangladesh Supreme Court in 1992 asserting that his prison conditions are inhumane and that, among other things, Ershad has not been allowed to leave the jail for what they consider necessary medical tests. The Court had not yet rendered judgment at year's end. The Government acknowledges that Ershad has been denied these tests, claiming that his medical condition is satisfactory.

In 1993, as in the past, a number of claims were filed with magistrates against jail officials involved in alleged cases of abuse. However, human rights monitors report that none of the magistrates' reports was published and that no legal action was taken. In one example reported by human rights monitors, a 13-year-old boy was taken into custody and raped by two police officers. After inquiries by human rights activists, the Government dismissed the two officers and reported that it planned to prosecute them on criminal charges.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Government continues to use national security legislation to detain citizens without formal charges. The law most often used for arbitrary detention is the Special Powers Act of 1974 (SPA). Under the SPA, the Government, through the Ministry of Home Affairs, may detain anyone deemed "a threat to the security of the country." Initially, the Government can detain a person for 30 days; by the end of that period, the Government must provide the detainee with a specific charge for his detention or release him. In practice, detainees are sometimes held for longer periods without being charged. From the date the charge is made, the Government permits the detainee 15 days to appeal the detention to the Home Ministry, which may grant early release.

After 6 months, a review panel that includes two jurists examines the case to determine if there is sufficient reason to continue the detention. If the Government adequately defends its detention order, the detainee remains imprisoned. If the Government fails to convince the review panel, the detainee is released. Detainees are allowed to see lawyers while in detention, although this is not usually permitted until a charge is filed. Detainees are allowed to see visitors and are not held incommunicado.

In September the Government reported that just under 900 people were currently being detained under the SPA, a decrease from the 3,000 level reported in 1992. The Government also reported that during the first 9 months of 1993 a total of 1,690 people were arrested under the SPA. Of 365 SPA cases that came before the High Court for review during this same period, 97 percent were found to be illegal. The great majority of those detained were released outright without being charged with specific crimes. These statistics do not support the Government's claim that the SPA is exclusively used against those facing legitimate criminal charges. In fact, the Government has used the SPA to harass political opponents, including prominent members of Ershad's Jatiya Party as well as low-level activists of other parties. For example, in April a former minister in Ershad's government and current Member of Parliament, Anwar Hussein Monju, was arrested under the SPA. He was released in May after the Government failed to file any charges against him. In addition, the Government uses the SPA to detain tribal opponents of its policies in the CHT, and human rights monitors assert that over 200 tribals are currently detained under the SPA.

In 1992 the Government enacted the Suppression of Terrorist Offenses bill. Under this law, commonly known as the "antiterrorism act," special tribunals were set up to try specific offenses, including extortion, destruction of property, hijacking, abduction, and terrorism, within specified and compressed time periods. The act specifically prohibits bail in the first month of detention; it also provides that tribunal judges are chosen by the Chief Justice, that all sentences may be appealed to the High Court, and that restitution should be provided for those wrongfully convicted.

According to the Home Ministry, during the first 9 months of 1993, 2,171 people were arrested under the antiterrorism act. Of those people tried during this period, approximately 42 percent were convicted; 371 people received prison sentences, most for periods of less than 10 years. The majority of the convictions were for extortion, hijacking, and terrorism. In November the first death sentence under this law was handed down to a man convicted of ransacking a testing hall and fighting with police during a national higher secondary school exam. This sentence is subject to higher review.

When the antiterrorism law went into effect, opponents of the bill expressed concern that indiscriminate use of the law would lead to many more cases of arbitrary detention on political grounds. However, the consensus among human rights monitors is that the antiterrorism law has so far been used to arrest criminals and not political activists. Nonetheless, concerns remain about the potential for abuse, and opposition parties continue to campaign for the law's repeal.

There were no reports of persons being exiled in 1993.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The court system is divided into two levels, the Low Court and the Supreme Court, both of which hear civil as well as criminal cases in public trials. The Low Court consists of magistrates, who are part of the administrative branch of government, and session judges, who belong to the judicial branch. The type and location of a case determines which of these branches will hear it. The Supreme Court has two divisions – the High Court division and the Appellate division. The High Court division hears original cases and reviews decisions of the Low Court. The Appellate division has jurisdiction to hear appeals of judgments, decrees, orders, or sentences of the High Court division. Rulings of the Appellate division are binding on all other courts.

The upper levels of the Bangladesh judiciary exhibit a high degree of independence and often rule against the Government in criminal, civil, and even politically sensitive cases. For example, in April a High Court division bench restored the citizenship of jailed Jamaat Islami leader Golam Azam despite government arguments that he did not qualify for citizenship. In July another High Court bench rejected the Government's arguments and ordered Azam released from incarceration.

The judicial system is inefficient and has a serious backlog. According to Ministry of Law statistics, the lower courts have over 218,000 criminal and civil cases on the docket, some dating back over a decade. In addition, the High Court division of the Supreme Court reports a backlog of over 5,000 cases which are over 10 years old. The Government reports that 26,352 of those awaiting trial are currently in prison. Over half have been in pretrial detention for less than 6 months, while 2,263 have been awaiting trial in prison for over 2 years. In November a man was released from the central prison after 21 years; for the first 13 years he was serving a sentence, and for the last 8 years he was awaiting trial on a second charge which was dismissed upon his release. In 1993 the Ministry of Law announced plans to hire more judges and streamline the legal process, but during the year only 13 new judges were appointed to the lower court.

The law provides an accused with the right to be represented by counsel, to review accusatory material, to call witnesses, and to appeal a judgment. In practice, however, these rights are not widely understood by a largely rural, illiterate population and are not always respected by the authorities, especially outside the main urban centers. The law allows judges to release an accused person awaiting trial on petition of bail. If bail is not granted, however, there are no legal limits to pretrial detention.

The time-consuming and expensive process of pursuing cases discourages many from seeking redress through the courts. While the right to legal counsel is recognized, it is not guaranteed. Courts provide state-funded defense attorneys in only a limited number of cases, and there are few legal aid programs to assist litigants. In June former President Ershad was convicted of use of undue influence and corruption and sentenced to 7 years' imprisonment. In 1991 and 1992, he was convicted on two other charges and sentenced to 13 years in prison. Ershad is appealing all of these convictions. He is now in prison, and a number of other cases are pending against him. He has been represented by counsel throughout the proceedings. His trials have been open to the press and public and conform to standard Bangladesh legal practice.

The Government claims to hold no political prisoners. However, some arrests under the SPA were for essentially political reasons, including those of members of Ershad's Jatiya Party and tribals arrested for allegedly aiding and abetting the insurgent group Shanti Bahini in the CHT.

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

Bangladesh legal procedure requires a judicial warrant before authorities may enter a home, and the courts may only issue this warrant if the Government provides evidence of reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed or is being contemplated. In practice, human rights monitors assert that warrants are rarely obtained and there are no sanctions applied against officers violating the stipulated procedure. The SPA permits authorities to search premises without a warrant.

Some opposition and CHT tribal leaders maintain that their telephones and mail are monitored by the Government's civilian and military intelligence services.

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

Since the early 1970's, the Shanti Bahini, a tribal insurgent group, have waged a low-level conflict in the CHT. The insurgency grew out of a conflict between the tribal people, who sought to maintain their traditional way of life and special status in the hill areas, and Bengali settlers from the lowlands who sought to exploit the CHT's fertile and relatively unpopulated land. In the 1960's and 1970's, large-scale government settlement programs rapidly increased the number of Bengali inhabitants in the CHT from only 3 percent in 1947 to an estimated 45 percent. In response to tribal grievances, the Government in 1985 began to discourage and eventually prohibited further settlement by nontribals in the CHT. Despite this, some settlers continue to move into the area.

In a further attempt to end the insurgency, the Government established elected district councils in 1990 which assumed control of local government affairs in June 1991. However, the military remains in place and continues to exercise veto power over any matter that could affect security. Law and order matters and control over land, two fundamental issues for the tribal people, have not yet been placed in the hands of the district councils.

Throughout the conflict, all sides – tribals, nontribal settlers, and security forces – have accused each other of numerous human rights violations. The details of specific incidents have been difficult to verify because of limited access to the area caused by government travel restrictions, tight security, difficult terrain, and unsafe conditions linked to the insurgency. In November, after over 1 year of relative quiet, 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 as well as other tribals in the town and looted and burned tribal homes. Army and police security forces present failed to stop the clash until at least 27 tribals had been killed and as many as 100 injured. The Government immediately appointed a one-man judicial inquiry commission to investigate.

A similar incident in April 1992 in the village of Logong, remains a contentious issue because of the Government's failure to take more than limited administrative action against those involved, as well as complaints about the accuracy of the government commission's inquiry report. According to that report, security forces and Bengali settlers killed 13 tribals (a number disputed by human rights monitors, who claim many more died), injured 13 others, and burned 550 huts in retaliation for the killing of a Bengali settler by the Shanti Bahini. There is no indication that the Government imposed or plans to impose any criminal sanctions on any of those responsible for the attack. The Government reports that one junior officer was dismissed from the border security forces, and disciplinary actions are pending against two paramilitary soldiers.

The Government continues to maintain a highly visible presence in the CHT. However, a series of short-term cease-fires, initiated by the Shanti Bahini in August 1992 and formally joined by the Government in May 1993, brought a decrease in violence and claims of human rights abuses in 1993. A government-appointed Parliamentary Committee held six meetings with representatives of the Jana Sanghati Samity (JSS), the political wing of the Shanti Bahini, to seek a solution to the conflict. The JSS has demanded removal of all Bengali settlers, withdrawal of the military, and regional autonomy, conditions which the Government has rejected. The sixth round of talks on November 24 resulted in little more than an agreement to meet for round seven and to extend the cease-fire until January 31, 1994.

In connection with efforts to stem the pattern of violence in the CHT, the Government sought to facilitate the repatriation of tribal refugees from the conflict who have sought shelter in India. Concerns about security and return of land were reportedly the primary issues that stalled these efforts (see also Section 2.d.). Despite the cease-fire and government-JSS talks, the situation remained fluid and tensions were high in the Hill Tracts throughout the year.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, subject only to "reasonable restrictions." In practice, the Government generally respects freedom of speech and tolerates open criticism of the Government. Public rallies and speeches are frequent and often in opposition to government policies or actions. The Government sought to impose no new restrictions on speech or publications in 1993, although it continued to limit equal access to broadcast media and discussed imposing regulations on journalists. Several attacks on newspaper offices by unknown assailants occurred during the year.

Bangladesh has a large number of publications containing a wide variety of editorial views. Newspaper ownership and content are not subject to government restriction. Despite frequent government statements, particularly by the Minister of Information, regarding a code of ethics for journalists and required qualifications for the position of editor, no actions were taken to impose such restrictions.

The Government continues to own BSS, one of two national news services, and to control a large advertising budget, which reportedly accounts for as much as 75 percent of all newspaper advertising revenues. Some editors complain that the Government uses its advertising budget to punish newspapers that criticize it, leading to self-censorship. This self-censorship may take the form of muted criticism of the Government. In general, however, newspapers publish a wide variety of viewpoints and opinions.

The Government provides some advertising to all newspapers but continues to favor some over others. The Information Minister has publicly stated on several occasions that one of the criteria for the distribution of government advertising is the degree of objectivity in the paper's reporting. This is a difficult standard to judge and is potentially subject to abuse. In addition, government advertising allotments are not distributed in direct proportion to circulation. The two papers owned by a government-controlled trust receive the greatest share, while others with higher circulations lag behind. The ruling party BNP newspaper, Dinkal, receives more government advertising than its circulation would appear to justify, while opposition papers receive less. For a period in early 1993, the left-leaning Bhorer Kagoj received no government advertising.

There were several attacks on newspaper offices in 1993. In February the office of the daily Banglabazar Patrika was ransacked. The police investigation turned up no clues or suspects. The paper had published several stories unfavorable to the ruling party, but no link between those stories and the attack was established. Also in February, the offices of the private news service, United News of Bangladesh, were attacked after the agency reported the winner of a parliamentary by-election before the election commission had officially released the results. In June unknown assailants broke into the offices of The Morning Sun and did extensive damage to computers and other equipment, while in September a bomb attack on the office of Ajker Kagoj resulted in injury to seven staff members.

The broadcast media remain under government control and ownership. Broadcast news provides noticeably more extensive and favorable coverage of the Government than of the opposition. Failure to provide coverage of events unfavorable to the Government is sometimes striking. In May this practice was evident in the coverage of a serious accident at Dhaka's airport involving an airplane of the government-owned Biman Bangladesh airlines. Bangladesh Television (BTV) failed to report the early morning accident, a major news story, in its evening broadcasts, reportedly because the Government had not yet issued an official statement. In another example, BTV coverage of a strike called by the National Trade Union Federation in May to protest the Government's refusal of concessions failed to mention widespread closures of factories and showed only footage of those that remained open.

In late 1992, the Government began to broadcast Cable News Network and British Broadcasting Corporation international news for several hours each day on the single Bangladesh television station. The Government continued this practice during 1993, thereby permitting considerably increased access to international news. The direct reception of international satellite telecasting services is becoming increasingly popular in Bangladesh and has not been regulated by the Government.

Issues of staffing and general programming tend to be politicized at BTV. During 1993, some BTV employees were reportedly transferred to other positions in the Ministry of Information after allegedly failing to respond to requests for coverage from ministries and high-ranking members of Parliament belonging to the ruling BNP party. Some critics claim that the Government removed the Director-General of BTV in June because he backed his staff on such questions.

The Government's Film Censor Board continues to exercise control over the screening of films in Bangladesh. It initially banned a film about the war of liberation on grounds that it distorted the nation's ideals. In response to a public outcry, the censors reversed their decision and allowed the film to be shown. The Censor Board also bans films it finds pornographic, and the Government continues to ban films from South Africa and Israel.

Foreign publications are generally available in Bangladesh. No foreign journalists were arrested, barred from entry, or expelled in 1993. No arrests were reported under the clause of the 1991 Penal Code prohibiting the publication or circulation of any statement "prejudicial to the interest of security of Bangladesh or public order."

Academic freedoms are respected by the Government. However,

faculty and student bodies are deeply politicized, sometimes inhibiting freedom of expression on campus. Teachers complain that verbal and physical assaults by students are politically motivated. Drama groups need permission – routinely granted – to perform plays. In 1993 the Government banned performance of "jatras" – bawdy village operas – on the grounds of obscenity. While the ban is enforced in the rural areas, government-sanctioned performances are permitted at a government-run academy in Dhaka.

A book entitled "Lajjya" ("Shame"), a fictional account of the plight of a Hindu family forced to leave Bangladesh by Muslim neighbors following the destruction of the Babri mosque in India, was banned by the Government a few months after its release in February. The Government justified the ban as necessary to avoid communal misunderstandings and violence, describing the book as "tantamount to blasphemy" and offensive to the "religious sentiment" of the majority of the population. A little known fundamentalist Islamic group from the northeast city of Sylhet issued a death threat against the book's author, Taslima Nasreen. Although it later retracted the death threat, the group continued to organize demonstrations against Ms. Nasreen's writings and to demand that the Government prosecute her for them. In response to the death threat and verbal attacks, the author sought and obtained court-ordered police protection. The Government took no action against the group that issued the death threat.

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. In practice, individuals are free to join private organizations and associations. Public meetings require a permit from a local district magistrate. Occasionally, the Government prohibits rallies in certain areas for security reasons. Sit-ins, hunger strikes, marches, and rallies are common forms of political expression in Bangladesh. These occasionally lead to violence, sometimes involving the police. In March the police attempted to stop a rally in downtown Dhaka by the Nirmul Committee, a group dedicated to prosecuting alleged collaborators for atrocities committed during the war of liberation. In breaking up the gathering, the police beat a number of the leaders, including Jahanara Iman, a nationally known writer and mother of a freedom fighter killed in the independence struggle. The Government received much public criticism for its heavy-handed tactics. The authorities frequently prohibited or harassed Jatiya Party meetings. Jatiya Party members who attempted to hold marches in Dhaka were forcibly prevented from doing so by the police. In some cases this led to minor violence between police and demonstrators.

c. Freedom of Religion

Islam is the dominant religion in Bangladesh, practiced by an estimated 87 percent of the population. The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1988, recognized it as the state religion. Although it also assures the freedom to practice other religions, this constitutional change continues to cause concern among Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist minorities. Some minority citizens believe it has encouraged hostility toward them and contributed to heightened communal tensions.

Following the destruction by Hindu radicals of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, India in December 1992, a backlash occurred in many parts of Bangladesh. Some Hindu temples were reportedly looted and destroyed. The Government reacted quickly and successfully contained most public demonstrations in the major cities, keeping violent actions against Hindu communities and property to a minimum. In many rural areas, however, Hindu communities received less effective police protection. Human rights monitors and Hindu organizations reported some deaths, hundreds of beatings, and significant property damage. The Government later offered to provide approximately $38,000 for the reconstruction of destroyed Hindu temples.

Proselytizing by Bangladeshi citizens is permitted by the Constitution, although in practice it is generally directed only toward such minority groups as Hindus and tribal people. There is strong social resistance to conversion from Islam.

Government policy continues to permit 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, unlike citizens, their right to proselytize is not protected by the Constitution, and the issue is extremely sensitive. An example of this sensitivity occurred in late 1992 when allegations of proselytizing and conversions from Islam provoked an attack by local Muslim residents on the largely Christian village of Chabagan in the Chittagong district. An angry mob attacked villagers, destroyed some homes, and threatened a nearby foreign Christian missionary-run hospital. Local authorities successfully defused tensions without further loss of property.

Some missionaries and Christian nongovernmental organizations report facing bureaucratic obstacles in carrying out their activities, including the threatened withdrawal of their government registrations along with lengthy delays in obtaining or renewing security clearances and visas for foreign personnel. Appeals to the Government have sometimes been successful in removing such obstacles.

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

Except in designated areas of the CHT, Bangladeshi citizens are free to move about within the country. Travel by foreigners is also restricted in the CHT and some other border areas. Bangladeshis are generally free to visit abroad and emigrate, subject to foreign exchange controls. Civil servants must first obtain clearance from the Prime Minister's office. In some instances, persons considered to be security risks are barred from traveling abroad. The right of repatriation is observed.

After the fall of the Ershad regime, the former President (currently imprisoned) and some of his family, as well as several senior members of his regime and political party (Jatiya Party), were prevented from leaving the country, and their passports were seized. This occurred even though the Supreme Court in July 1990 had declared illegal the seizure in 1986 of a former Member of Parliament's passport. The Acting Secretary General of the Jatiya Party and another party official were prevented from traveling to Saudi Arabia in 1993, when government officials charged they were carrying a letter from jailed former President Ershad to King Fahd. Some of those affected by such restrictions have challenged them in the courts and have received rulings allowing them to travel.

Approximately 238,000 non-Bengali Muslims, known as Biharis, remain in Bangladesh pending resettlement in Pakistan. After independence in 1971, these persons opted for Pakistani citizenship, and Pakistan agreed in principle to accept them. Despite Pakistani assurances to Prime Minister Zia, during her visit to Pakistan in August 1992, that 3,000 Biharis would soon be accepted, only one small transfer of 325 refugees took place in January.

The Biharis, most of whom still reside in 66 camps throughout Bangladesh, may seek employment and conduct other activities, but as noncitizens they do not vote, hold seats in Parliament, or hold passports. Biharis may apply for Bangladeshi citizenship at any time, and those who do are granted full rights of citizenship.

At the end of 1993, approximately 200,000 Rohingyas, Muslims from Burma's Arakan Province, remained refugees in southeastern Bangladesh. Fleeing repression of the Burmese security forces, 250,000 Rohingyas crossed the border into Bangladesh, largely in late 1991 and early 1992. With international assistance, they are being housed in 19 camps in the area of Cox's Bazar. The Government restricts their movements and frequently arrests those who venture outside the camps. The Government is under domestic pressure to repatriate the refugees quickly.

The presence of the Rohingya refugees continues to spark occasional public protests and violent incidents involving security personnel, local residents, and refugees. There were credible reports that local government authorities abused refugees in order to force repatriation at various times during 1993, especially in August and September. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in addition to providing relief services, has worked to protect the refugees from abuses and to ensure that repatriation is voluntary. The repatriation process, which began in September 1992, has been slow, sporadic, and marred by government efforts to coerce refugees into returning to Burma. In December 1992, UNHCR announced that the Government was preventing it from carrying out its protection mandate, and credible reports of forced repatriation by the Government prompted international criticism. After extensive negotiations, the Government and UNHCR signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in May that permits UNHCR to conduct private interviews of returning refugees to determine if their decision is voluntary. It also allows UNHCR access to all the refugee camps during daylight hours.

Due to uncertainty about the life they would face after returning to Burma, most Rohingyas were unwilling to volunteer for repatriation in the absence of international monitoring in Burma. By the end of 1993, 16 months after the process began, only about 50,000 had returned. However, the Government of Burma and UNHCR reached an agreement in November that, when implemented, will permit a UNHCR presence in Burma to protect the returning refugees and to provide relief and rehabilitation assistance.

Between 30,000 and 50,000 Bangladesh tribal refugees from the CHT are residing in the Indian state of Tripura. It is believed that up to 15,000 may have returned to Bangladesh in the last several years. Bangladesh and India reached agreement on plans for full repatriation and announced the agreement with promises of the return of land to the refugees and extensive resettlement assistance. However, no refugees returned on the first scheduled date in June. The Government continues to attempt to reassure the refugees of a receptive climate for their return. Despite repeated visits to the camps in India by government representatives and a refugee delegation visit to Bangladesh for first-hand observation in September, there was no official repatriation of tribal refugees in 1993.

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

With the fall of the Ershad regime and the holding of free and fair elections in 1991, Bangladesh's citizens began to enjoy the right to change their government through democratic means. Bangladesh has a multiparty parliamentary system in which elections by secret ballot are held on the basis of universal suffrage.

Members of Parliament are to be elected at least every 5 years. The Parliament has 300 elected members, with 30 additional seats reserved for women who are chosen after the election by the seated Parliament. Candidates may contest a maximum of five seats in any one election but may hold only one. Parliament elects Bangladesh's president to a 5-year term. The President's duties are largely ceremonial.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party, headed by Khaleda Zia, emerged from the election in 1991 with a plurality of seats and formed a government. It currently holds a slim majority in Parliament. The parliamentary opposition is led by Sheikh Hasina Wajed and her party, the Awami League. While there are a number of minor parties, the only other major opposition parties are former President Ershad's Jatiya Party and the Islamic-oriented party, the Jamaat Islami.

Municipal elections were held in January throughout the country, and in February a by-election was held to fill a vacant parliamentary seat. The by-election was won by the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party, but the opposition Awami League claimed there were irregularities in the vote counting. The independent Chief Election Commissioner ordered a recount – the first in Bangladesh's history – which confirmed the original results. Outside observers found the election process to be free and fair. In the municipal elections, nominally nonpartisan, the right to vote was openly, freely, and fairly exercised. Although some scattered violence occurred, its incidence was greatly reduced from elections held under the previous regime.

Tribals in the CHT have full national voting rights and are represented in the Parliament by three members. A majority of the seats on the three local district councils in the CHT is reserved for tribals.

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

A number of domestic human rights nongovernmental organizations operate openly, actively conducting investigations into allegations of possible human rights violations. During 1993, some of these organizations published extensive reports of their findings, held press conferences, and issued appeals to the Government to take action in specific cases. Local organizations regularly communicated with government officials as well as representatives of international human rights organizations and foreign governments. They also implemented programs promoting human and legal rights awareness among the country's largely uneducated and rural majority. In 1993 there were no reports of arrests of human rights monitors, confiscation of publications, or forced suspension of an organization's activities.

The Government continues to be sensitive to international opinion regarding human rights issues. On occasion during 1993, the Government restricted access to some Rohingya refugee camps by nongovernmental relief organizations and UNHCR representatives. However, in the May agreement with UNHCR, the Government guaranteed UNHCR access to all camps during daylight hours. Since then, access to the camps has been greatly improved.

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

Bangladesh is a largely rural and culturally homogeneous society, with deeply ingrained cultural and religious traditions. It is also one of the most densely populated countries in the world with a developing economy that is barely able to keep pace with population growth. In this context, women, children, minority groups, and the disabled often confront social and economic disadvantages that the society is unable or unwilling to eliminate. Article 27 of the Constitution states that "all citizens are equal before the law, and are entitled to equal protection by the law." In practice, legal provisions aimed at eliminating discrimination are not strongly enforced. Social programs designed to help disadvantaged groups are often insufficient or not fully implemented.


Women continue to hold a subordinate place in Bangladesh society. While their position has improved in the last decade, progress has been slow. Even though some 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas where women's traditional role is crucial to the well-being and success of the family and community, women are nevertheless generally considered an economic liability and receive inferior treatment. Most nutrition, health, and educational indicators show that Bangladeshi women fare worse than men.

Article 28 of the Constitution specifically prohibits government discrimination against any citizen on grounds of sex. Despite this provision, women do not enjoy equal status with men under the law. The 1961 Muslim Family Ordinance, for example, provides for less inheritance for women than for male family members and more limited divorce rights. Men are permitted to have up to four wives. Under criminal and civil law, women are granted equal status. In practice, however, high illiteracy rates (greater among women than men) and unequal educational opportunities often mean that women are unaware of their rights. Strong social stigmas and lack of economic means to obtain legal assistance frequently prevent women from seeking redress in the courts, which are in any event heavily backlogged (see Section 1.e.). A small number of legal awareness programs targeted at women have had limited impact. Women enjoy full voting rights which they exercise openly in at least equal numbers with men.

In education and employment women occupy a measurably weaker position. By tradition, and perhaps in response to women's lack of economic opportunities (which tends to perpetuate the cycle), families tend to invest more in male than female education. Among the majority rural population, only 30 percent of primary school students are female. This figure drops to below 25 percent at the secondary level and below 15 percent at the college and university level. While economic opportunities for women have grown faster than those for men in the last decade, women still occupy only a small fraction of the wage-earning jobs, except in the garment industry. Less than 5 percent of all government jobs are held by women. A policy of ensuring more women among new hires has had limited effect as the Government has been unable to reach its stated goal of 15 percent.

Violence against women is part of, and at the same time overshadowed by, the general repression of women in society. Specific acts of violence are difficult to quantify because of unreliable statistics. Due to the second-class status of women in society, most incidents go unreported because they are either ignored by the authorities or suppressed by the family or community. An indication of the level of violence against women was revealed in the statistics released by the Government in October on recorded cases of suicide in the country for the previous 22 months. According to these figures, women had a considerably higher suicide rate (57 versus 42 percent) than the majority male population. In 1993 human rights monitors reported five incidents in which unofficial community councils carried out judgments, usually floggings, against women accused of various moral offenses. One woman was reportedly stoned to death, and another was burned. The Government, which recognizes the role of traditional village councils in resolving local disputes, has said that it is seeking criminal prosecution of those involved in the death cases.

The Government has enacted laws specifically prohibiting certain forms of discrimination against women, including the Anti-Dowry Prohibition Act of 1980 and the Cruelty to Women Law of 1983. Enforcement is weak, especially in the rural areas where most of the population resides, and the Government usually does not vigorously prosecute cases which are filed. While it is clear that dowry deaths do occur, there are no reliable statistics on their number or on the prosecution of perpetrators. The Government reports that under the Cruelty to Women Law 1,108 cases were filed in the 12-month period ending in July 1993. By the end of 1993, only 14 of those cases had been prosecuted, and in only one case was a conviction obtained.


The Government undertakes programs in the areas of primary education, health, family planning, and nutrition which target directly or have a direct impact on the welfare of children. Some programs have been quite successful. For instance, the Government's immunization program has raised childhood immunization rates in the urban areas from 3 percent to 82 percent. However, although reliable expenditure figures are not available, it is clear that current resources are inadequate to meet the needs of this vulnerable and major segment of the population. General health and social indicators clearly show that most children face difficult odds in obtaining adequate health care and education. Despite improvements made in the last decade, indicators such as infant mortality and child morbidity rates remain relatively high.

The Government in 1991 made universal primary education mandatory but stated that it could not implement the law in the foreseeable future. Pilot programs in one small area of each of Bangladesh's 64 districts were begun. In practice, among children 6 to 10 years of age, only about 50 percent are in school. Of those, approximately 65 percent drop out before the age of 10.

Primary education is currently underfunded in comparison with secondary schools and universities, which together receive about 70 percent of the Government's expenditures on education. Recognizing the importance of primary education, the Government in 1993 created a Division of Primary Education, separate from the Ministry of Education and reporting directly to the Prime Minister's office.

Human rights monitors have reported problems of children being abandoned, kidnaped, and sold into bondage, as well as a growing problem of child trafficking and prostitution schemes. When uncovered by the authorities, these have received wide public attention and condemnation. Police and border security forces are alert to and routinely check for signs of child trafficking. Government officials acknowledge, however, that a lack of resources and training limits their ability to tackle these problems.

Indigenous People

The issue of property rights for land traditionally held by the tribal people of Bangladesh, particularly those of the CHT, continues to cause claims of discrimination and to provoke acts of violence. Until 1985 the land of CHT tribal peoples, who frequently lacked proof of ownership, was regularly parceled out by the Government to Bengali settlers. There were also complaints of false deeds, physical attacks, unannounced mortgage foreclosures, and outright confiscation of land from suspected tribal insurgents. No reports of similar violations have been received in recent years, but longstanding complaints continue to be a fundamental factor underlying the insurgency in the CHT (see Section l.g.). The Government has moved toward granting more authority over local matters to the tribal people in the CHT. In July 1991, tribal-dominated local government councils assumed control over primary education, health, family welfare, and agricultural extension. Government security forces, however, continue to control issues of law and order as well as land use.

Tribal peoples in other areas of Bangladesh in the past have also reported loss of land to Bengali Muslims through questionable legal practices and other means.

Religious minorities

Religious minorities, principally Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist, make up an estimated 13 percent of the population. Although equal under the law, these 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. In the current Parliament there are 12 members from minority groups, out of a total of 330.

Property ownership, particularly for Hindus, has been a contentious issue since independence, when many Hindus lost land holdings due to unequal application of the law. Reported cases of violence directed against religious minority communities has resulted in loss of property, most recently in the aftermath of the destruction of the Babri mosque in India in December 1992. These actions are a symptom of the communal tensions that have prompted some people belonging to minority groups to leave Bangladesh, causing a slow but steady decline in the relative size of the country's minority population, especially Hindus.

People with Disabilities

According to government figures, there are approximately 3 million disabled people in the country. Bangladesh's laws provide for equal treatment and freedom from discrimination for the disabled. The Government has not yet enacted specific legislation or otherwise mandated accessibility for the disabled. It has announced, however, that it is developing a national plan of action to address this and other ways of promoting the rights of disabled people.

In 1993 the Ministry of Social Welfare reported that in the last year approximately 100,000 disabled people benefited from programs to teach technical skills. An overall lack of resources directed toward the disabled, however, leaves them disadvantaged and unable to benefit fully from legally prescribed rights. The disabled are particularly vulnerable to the problems of insufficient employment opportunities and inadequate health, education, and social services that affect the society as a whole.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Bangladesh Constitution guarantees freedom of association, the right to join unions, and, with government approval, the right to form a union. 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. Bangladeshi civil servants forbidden to join unions, such as teachers or nurses, have joined associations that perform functions similar to labor unions, i.e., providing for members' welfare, offering legal services, and airing grievances. Collective bargaining, however, is prohibited. Some workers have formed unregistered unions. Current law also prohibits professional and industry-based unions in Bangladesh's two export processing zones (EPZ's).

Workers in the two EPZ's have also skirted prohibitions on forming unions by setting up associations. The Government has stated that labor law restrictions on freedom of association and formation of unions in the EPZ's will be lifted by 1997. In the burgeoning garment industry, there have been numerous complaints of workers being harassed and fired in some factories for trying to organize workers.

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, and labor statistics are unreliable.)

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, though the calling of nationwide general strikes or transportation blockades by unions is considered a criminal rather than political act and thus forbidden. Some unions have complained that the Government is using its antiterrorism law as a means to suppress both opposition political workers and union members, rather than bona fide terrorists.

Unions are not part of the government structure. They are highly politicized, however, and virtually all the 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 in 1993, with scattered violence. Clashes between members of rival labor unions occurred in 1993, and at least two union leaders died in such incidents. On September 13, 25 workers were injured in clashes between armed Awami League and BNP labor front members at the large Adamjee jute mill.

For a union to obtain and maintain its registration, 30 percent employee participation is required. Workers are eligible for membership on the 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 in 1993. There are no restrictions on affiliation with international labor organizations, and Bangladeshi 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 clearances were reported denied in 1993.

The right to strike is not specifically recognized in the law, but strikes are a common form of protest. In 1993 university teachers struck over the issue of campus violence. Jute, textile, and sugar workers struck over the issues of minimum wages, privatization of industry, retrenchment of workers, and the detention of labor officials.

General strikes continue to be used by the political opposition to pressure the Government on 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.

The Essential Services Ordinance permits the Government to bar strikes for 3 months in any sector it decides is "essential." This ban, which is generally obeyed, was applied in 1993 to national airline pilots and water supply workers and previously has been applied to shipping operations and electricity supply workers. 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 resolutions were established under the Industrial Relations Ordinance of 1969. Workers have the right to strike in the event of a failure to achieve a bipartite settlement. 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 took place in several cases in 1993, but no decisions were reached by the court. Such delayed decisions are frequent, usually due to nonattendance by employers or the union. Both sides use the tactic of delay, employers attempting to keep workers on the job, and union leaders, short of strike funds, allowing workers to return to work without calling off the strike.

There are provisions in the Bangladesh Industrial Relations Ordinance for the immunity of registered unions or officers from civil liability. Enforcement of these provisions is uneven. In the case of illegal work actions, such as transportation blockades, police arrest union members under either the Special Powers Act, the Antiterrorism Law, or regular criminal codes.

b. The Right To Organize and Bargain Collectively

Free collective bargaining is legal only for private sector workers in Bangladesh, 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, but, with unemployment in the 30 percent range, workers' concerns with job security often outweigh wage and other issues. During three major strike calls in 1993, worker attendance at private factories remained high. 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 high 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 court has ordered the reinstatement of workers fired for union activities. However, the Labor Court's overall effectiveness is damaged by a serious case backlog, and there have also been allegations that some of its deliberations have been corrupted by employers. Unions are prohibited and no collective bargaining takes place in the export processing zones. The Government has stated that restrictions on unions in these zones will be lifted by 1997.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution prohibits forced or compulsory labor. The Factories Act and Shops and Establishment Act, 1965, set up inspection mechanisms to enforce laws against forced labor, but resources for enforcement are few. These laws are not rigorously enforced. 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. This is the case in the garment industry, which operates in high-volume, short-deadline modes of production.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

Bangladesh has laws that prohibit labor by children. The Factories Act of 1965 bars children under the age of 15 from working in factories. This law also stipulates that young workers (i.e., children and adolescents) are only allowed to work 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 United Nations estimates, about one-third of Bangladesh's population under the age of 18 is working. Children are commonly seen driving rickshaws, breaking bricks at construction sites, and working at tea stalls. Children also routinely perform domestic work. Cases of children being physically abused and occasionally killed by the head of households where they work are reported in the press. Under the law, each child must attend school through the fifth grade. However, the Government continues to maintain that it does not have the resources to implement this law immediately in the entire country.

In anticipation of possible U.S. legislation prohibiting the import of products made by child labor, thousands of underage children employed in Bangladesh's garment industry were fired in 1993. A cooperative effort to rehabilitate the estimated 70,000 children who will ultimately lose their jobs in the garment industry is being mounted by the Bangladesh Government, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the ILO, and nongovernmental organizations.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There is no national minimum wage. Instead, the wage commission sets wages 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 fell slightly short of the level recommended by the wage commission. According to the agreement, government factory workers will receive about $24 a month (950 taka) plus benefits, effective in July 1993. Private sector wages tend to fall below the total government wage and benefits package. The average wage of private sector workers in similar industries is several hundred taka less.

The law sets a standard 48-hour workweek with 1 day off mandated. 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. Relative to the average standard of living in Bangladesh, the average monthly wage could be described as sufficient to support life but not by any means a good wage for a family.

The Factories Act of 1965 nominally sets occupational health and safety standards. The law is comprehensive but appears to be largely ignored by many Bangladeshi 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 inspectorate 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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