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Freedom in the World 2004 - Bangladesh

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 18 December 2003
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2004 - Bangladesh, 18 December 2003, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/473c5476c.html [accessed 21 January 2018]
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.

Political Rights: 4
Civil Liberties: 4
Status: Partly Free
Population: 146,700,000
GNI/Capita: $360
Life Expectancy: 59
Religious Groups: Muslim (83 percent), Hindu (16 percent), other (1 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Bengali (98 percent), other [including Bihari] (2 percent)
Capital: Dhaka


Overview

Bangladesh continued in 2003 to be plagued by lawlessness, rampant corruption, and violent political polarization, all of which threaten its prospects for consolidating democratic institutions and achieving economic development and reform. The opposition Awami League (AL) remains reliant on parliamentary boycotts and national strikes to impede the effective functioning of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led coalition government. For its part, the BNP continued to implement a sweeping anticrime drive begun in October 2002 in which army personnel have been periodically deployed to maintain law and order. Official intolerance toward criticism and scrutiny persisted, with journalists, human rights advocates, and leaders and perceived supporters of the political opposition being detained or otherwise harassed throughout the year.

With the partition of British India in 1947, what is now Bangladesh became the eastern part of the newly formed state of Pakistan. Bangladesh won independence from Pakistan in December 1971 after a nine-month war during which Indian troops helped defeat West Pakistani forces stationed in Bangladesh. The 1975 assassination of Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman by soldiers precipitated 15 years of military rule and continues to polarize Bangladeshi politics. The country's democratic transition began with the resignation in 1990 of the last military ruler, General H. M. Ershad, after weeks of pro-democracy demonstrations. Elections in 1991 brought the BNP to power under Khaleda Zia.

The political deadlock began in 1994, when Sheikh Hasina Wajed's center-left AL began boycotting parliament to protest alleged corruption in Zia's BNP government. The AL and the BNP differ relatively little on domestic policy. Many disputes reflect the personal animosity between Hasina, the daughter of independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and Zia, the widow of a former military ruler allegedly complicit in Mujibur's assassination. The AL boycotted the February 1996 elections, which the BNP won, but then forced Zia's resignation in March and triumphed in elections held in June. Hasina's government signed an accord ending a low-grade insurgency in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. However, political tensions were exacerbated when the government passed a controversial public order law in January 2000, which the BNP said could be used against its members and to break general strikes.

Political gridlock continued in 2001, as the opposition BNP boycotted parliament and organized several nationwide strikes. In October, the AL was voted out of office in elections marred by political violence and intimidation. A new four-party coalition, dominated by the BNP and also including two hard-line Muslim parties, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islami Oikyo Jote, was sworn into power with a convincing majority of 214 of the 300 seats in parliament. Zia announced soon after taking office that her top priority would be to free Bangladesh from lawlessness and corruption.

The AL initially refused to accept the election results and since 2001 has intermittently boycotted parliament to protest various government policies. Reneging on a pledge she made during the election campaign, Hasina also organized several nationwide hartals (general strikes) during the year.

Faced with mounting domestic and international frustration with the continued deterioration in law and order, in October 2002, the government deployed nearly 40,000 army personnel in "Operation Clean Heart" (OCH) as part of an anticrime drive during which thousands were arrested. A further attempt to crack down on crime and lawlessness was made in June 2003, when authorities announced that they intended to deploy paramilitary forces and that police had been given orders to "shoot on sight." Although the policy was initially popular among Bangladeshis weary of rising crime rates and a general climate of impunity for criminals, police and army excesses, including extortion and torture, led to repeated statements of concern from both domestic and international groups during the year.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Bangladeshis can change their government through elections. A referendum held in 1991 transformed the powerful presidency into a largely ceremonial head-of-state position in a parliamentary system. Elections to the 300-member unicameral parliament are held in single-member districts under a simple-plurality rule. The June 1996 vote was the first under a constitutional amendment requiring a caretaker government to conduct elections. The October 2001 elections were described as generally free and fair despite concerns over polling irregularities, intimidation, and violence. More than 140 people were killed throughout the campaign period in what was Bangladesh's most violent election to date.

Both major parties have undermined the legislative process through lengthy parliamentary boycotts while in opposition. In recent years, political violence during demonstrations and general strikes has killed hundreds of people in major cities and injured thousands, and police often use excessive force against opposition protesters. Student wings of political parties continue to be embroiled in violent campus conflicts. In addition, several AL politicians were assassinated in August and September.

Aid donors blame corruption, a weak rule of law, limited bureaucratic transparency, and political polarization for undermining government accountability and economic development. In October, Transparency International listed Bangladesh at the bottom of a 133-country list on its 2003 Corruption Perceptions Index and noted that corruption was perceived to be "pervasive." As the Bureau of Anti-Corruption is under the direct control of the prime minister's office, corruption cases filed against senior officials are often politicized and lack credibility, and sitting officials are never prosecuted.

The Bangladeshi press continued to face a number of pressures in 2003. Although the print media are diverse, journalists are regularly harassed and violently attacked by organized-crime groups, political parties and their supporters, government authorities, the police, and Islamic fundamentalists. Most practice some selfcensorship. During the year, security forces detained a number of journalists after they reported on topics such as corruption, electoral violence, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and human rights abuses. In June, warrants of arrest were filed against two leading news editors for defamation after they published a letter that was critical of a senior government official. Political considerations influence the distribution of government advertising revenue and subsidized newsprint, upon which most publications are dependent. The state owns most broadcast media, whose coverage favors the ruling party.

Islam is the official religion. Hindus, Christians, and other minorities have the right to worship freely but face societal discrimination and remain underrepresented in government employment. Violence against Bangladesh's Hindu minority flared up after the October 2001 elections, when BNP supporters reportedly attacked Hindus because of their perceived support for the rival AL. Atrocities, including murder, rape, destruction of property, and kidnapping, forced hundreds of Hindus from their homes, some across the border into India. There are also occasional reports of violence against members of the Ahmadiya religious minority.

While the government generally respects academic freedom, political polarization at many public universities, which occasionally erupts into protests and clashes between students and security forces, inhibits the ability of some students to receive an education.

The constitution provides for freedom of assembly, but the government frequently limits this right in practice. Demonstrators are occasionally killed or injured during clashes with police. Numerous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate in Bangladesh and fulfill a variety of basic needs in fields such as education, health care, and microcredit. However, those that are perceived to have links to the opposition or that criticize the government, particularly on human rights issues, have been subject to intense official scrutiny and occasional harassment, according to the U.S. State Department's 2002 human rights report.

Union formation is hampered by a 30 percent employee approval requirement and restrictions on organizing by unregistered unions. Employers can legally fire or transfer workers suspected of union activities. The law prohibits many civil servants from joining unions; these workers can form associations but are prohibited from bargaining collectively. The U.S. Agency for International Development has reported that almost half of children aged 10 to 14 are working, mostly as domestic servants, farm workers, or rickshaw pullers.

The Supreme Court displays a "significant degree of independence" and often rules against the executive, according to the U.S. State Department. However, lowerlevel courts remained subject to executive influence and were rife with corruption. The government continues to delay implementing the separation of the judiciary from the executive as ordered by a 1999 Supreme Court directive. The judicial system is severely backlogged, and pretrial detention is lengthy. Many defendants lack counsel, and poor people have limited recourse through the courts.

Prison conditions are extremely poor, and severe overcrowding is increasingly common. Prisoners are routinely subjected to physical abuse and demands for bribes from corrupt law enforcement officials. In a May 2003 report, Amnesty International expressed concern that police frequently detain people without an arrest warrant and that detainees are routinely subjected to torture and other forms of abuse. Local human rights NGO Odhikar registered 43 instances of custodial death during the first half of 2003. The majority of police abuses go unpunished, which results in a climate of impunity.

As part of Operation Clean Heart (OCH), a government-initiated anticrime drive of questionable constitutional legality that took place from October 2002 through January 2003, the army detained nearly 11,000 people, including members of both political parties, over 40 of whom died while in police custody. In February, the president signed legislation that granted the troops involved in OCH immunity from prosecution in civilian courts for the abuses committed during the operation. However, the BBC reported that in March, a military court did find four soldiers guilty of torture and extortion, and in April, a special court convicted eight policemen for similar offenses.

Many of these forms of abuse are facilitated by the existence of legislation such as the Special Powers Act of 1974, which permits arbitrary detention without charge, and Section 54 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which allows individuals to be detained without a warrant. Authorities regularly detain thousands of political opponents and ordinary citizens, and use serial detentions to prevent the release of political activists. In a December 2002 press release, Amnesty International highlighted a pattern of politically motivated detentions, noting that senior opposition politicians, academics, journalists, and human rights activists critical of government policies were particularly at risk of prolonged detention and ill treatment in custody. According to a 2002 UN Development Program report on the Bangladeshi legal system, almost 90 percent of "preventative detention" cases that reach the courts are judged to be unlawful. However, in August 2003, the Supreme Court directed the government to implement a judicial order barring the detention of anyone arrested merely on the suspicion of having committed a crime.

Tribal minorities have little control over land issues affecting them, and minority rights groups say that Bengalis have cheated many tribal people out of their land. A 1997 accord between the government and the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) People's Solidarity Association ended a 24-year insurgency in the CHT that had sought autonomy for indigenous tribes and had resulted in the deaths of 8,500 soldiers, rebels, and civilians. However, Amnesty International's 2002 report noted that while tribal representatives continued to demand implementation of the accord, violent clashes between majority tribal groups and radical groups opposed to the peace process continue to be reported. Roughly 260,000 Rohingyas fleeing forced labor, discrimination, and other abuses in Burma entered Bangladesh in 1991 and 1992; some 22,000 Rohingya refugees and 100,000 other Rohingyas not formally documented as refugees remain in the country. Bangladeshi authorities speeded up the repatriation process in May under a new agreement reached with the Burmese government. Bangladesh also hosts some 300,000 Urdu-speaking Biharis who were rendered stateless at independence in 1971, many of whom seek repatriation to Pakistan. In May, a landmark high court ruling gave citizenship and voting rights to 10 Bihari refugees.

Rape, dowry-related assaults, acid throwing, and other violence against women occur frequently. A law requiring rape victims to file police reports and obtain medical certificates within 24 hours of the crime in order to press charges prevents most rape cases from reaching the courts. Police also accept bribes not to register rape cases and rarely enforce existing laws protecting women. The Acid Survivors Foundation, a local NGO, recorded 485 acid attacks in 2002, with the majority being carried out against women. While prosecution for acid-related crimes remains inadequate, under the stringent Acid Crime Prevention Act passed in 2002, one attacker was sentenced to death early in 2003. In rural areas, religious leaders occasionally issue fatwas (religious edicts) that impose floggings and other punishments on women accused of violating strict moral codes. Women also face discrimination in health care, education, and employment, and are underrepresented in politics and government.

Human rights activists estimate that organized groups traffick nearly 25,000 Bangladeshi women and children each year into Middle Eastern and other South Asian countries for the purposes of prostitution and low-paid labor. Law enforcement officials rarely investigate trafficking, and rights groups allege that the police are often engaged in these and other crimes.

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