Freedom in the World 2001 - Bangladesh
|Cite as||Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2001 - Bangladesh, 2001, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/5278c9977.html [accessed 23 January 2018]|
Status: Partly Free
Freedom Rating: 3.5
Civil Liberties: 4
Political Rights: 3
The political gridlock that has undermined Bangladesh's economy since the mid-1990s continued in 2000, as the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and three allies boycotted parliament and organized several nationwide strikes. Accusing the Awami League government of corruption and abuse of power, the opposition called on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed to hold elections before they are due in mid-2001.
Bangladesh won independence in December 1971 after Indian troops helped defeat occupying West Pakistani forces in a nine-month war. The 1975 assassination of Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibar Rahman by soldiers precipitated 15 years of often turbulent 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 strikes and parliamentary boycotts began in 1994, when Hasina's center-left Awami League began boycotting parliament to protest alleged corruption in Zia's BNP government and a rigged by-election. The Awami League and the BNP differ relatively little on domestic policy. Many disputes reflect the personal animosity between Hasina, the daughter of independence leader Sheikh Mujibar Rahman, and Zia, the widow of a former military ruler allegedly complicit in Sheikh Mujibar's 1975 assassination.
The Awami League boycotted the February 1996 elections, which the BNP won, but forced Zia's resignation in March. At the June 1996 elections, held with a 73 percent turnout, the Awami League won 146 of 300 parliamentary seats (30 additional seats are reserved for women); the BNP, 113; the Jatiya Party of former dictator Ershad, 33; and smaller parties, independents, and vacant seats, 8.
Under Hasina, the government signed a 1996 Ganges River water-sharing accord with India and a 1997 accord ending a low-grade insurgency in the Chittigong Hill Tracts. Hasina's government also has allowed foreign companies to invest in offshore natural gas exploration, though it has refused to permit gas to be exported until Bangladesh accumulates a 50-year reserve. By some estimates, Bangladesh also achieved near self-sufficiency in food production over the past four years. An October World Bank report praised Bangladesh's fiscal year 2000 growth of 5.2 percent, but noted that each one-day nationwide strike costs the economy $60 million. There were 28 days of political strikes in 1999, the latest year for which figures are available.
Hasina's government denied the opposition's charges of wrongdoing, but contributed to political tensions by passing in January a controversial public order law that it said would improve law and order. The opposition said the law could be used against its members and to break general strikes. Further raising tensions, an anti-corruption bureau laid graft charges in September against BNP leader Zia and nine other former government officials over the 1995 purchase of two passenger aircraft when Zia was prime minister.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
Bangladeshis can change their government through elections. The June 1996 vote was the first under a constitutional amendment requiring a caretaker government to conduct elections; it was Bangladesh's freest election despite some violence and irregularities. Lower house elections are held in single-member districts under simple-plurality rule. A September 1991 referendum transformed the powerful presidency into a largely ceremonial head-of-state position in a parliamentary system.
Both the Awami League and the BNP have undermined the legislative process through lengthy parliamentary boycotts while in opposition. In recent years, political violence during demonstrations and general strikes has killed dozens of people in major cities. Awami League activists continued in 2000 to break up forcibly some opposition rallies, and police continued to use excessive force against opposition protesters. The opposition forcibly disrupted some pro-government rallies and used violence to enforce general strikes. Student wings of political parties continued to be embroiled in violent campus conflicts.
The high court is independent, but according to the United States Department of State's country report for 1999, "lower level courts are more susceptible to pressure from the executive branch." Lower courts are also rife with corruption and are severely backlogged, and pretrial detention is lengthy. Many defendants lack counsel, and poor people in general have limited recourse through the courts. Amnesty International said in November that successive governments since independence have tolerated "widespread and persistent" torture. It said the majority of cases involve torturing criminal suspects to get them to confess to crimes they didn't commit, although police also tortured political dissidents and innocent bystanders. Police also routinely rape suspects and prisoners. Prison conditions are extremely poor.
Authorities continued to occasionally arbitrarily detain political opponents and ordinary citizens, and to detain citizens without charge under the 1974 Special Powers Act. The government generally detains political opponents for short periods, and many of these detentions appear to be politically motivated. The broadly drawn Public Safety Act that came into effect in February provides for jail terms of between 2 and 14 years for hijacking, committing extortion, damaging property, obstructing traffic, "causing panic," and other offenses. Human rights advocates have sharply criticized the practice under which authorities place some female victims of rape, kidnapping, prostitution, and trafficking in "safe custody" in prison, where they are vulnerable to rape and other abuses.
The print media are diverse and often critical of the government. However, journalists frequently face pressure from organized crime groups, political parties, the government, and Islamic fundamentalists, and practice some self-censorship. The Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) said that a reporter who was murdered in July in Jessore had been exposing the illegal activities of a local organized crime ring, and was the third journalist to be murdered in western Bangladesh since August 1998. In an effort to cover up their abuses of protesters, police occasionally beat journalists covering demonstrations. RSF expressed in March concern at "the increasing number of criminal charges brought against opposition journalists by ministers and members of parliament of the ruling party." The same month, authorities arrested a journalist under the Public Safety Act for allegedly inciting students at a Koranic school to attack the police. Political considerations influence the distribution of government advertising revenue and subsidized newsprint, upon which most publications are dependent. The state-owned Bangladesh Radio and Television owns most broadcast media, whose coverage favors the ruling party.
Rape, dowry-related assaults, acid-throwing, and other violence against women occur relatively frequently. A September United Nations report said that 47 percent of all Bangladeshi women are subjected to violence by their male partners. 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. In rural areas religious leaders occasionally arbitrarily 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. Under customary laws of the minority Hindu community, women have no legal right to divorce or inheritance. Muslim women in theory enjoy greater legal protection in family matters, but these laws are routinely flouted.
The Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association said in a 1999 report that organized groups traffick nearly 25,000 Bangladeshi women and children each year into Middle Eastern and other South Asian countries for the purpose of prostitution and low-paid labor. Law enforcement officials rarely investigate trafficking, and human rights groups say the police are often engaged in these and other crimes.
Islam is the official religion. Hindus, Christians, and other minorities worship freely but face societal discrimination. There are occasional reports of violence against members of the Ahmadiya religious minority. The Garos and other tribal minorities have little input in 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 Chittigong Hill Tracts (CHT) People's Solidarity Association ended a 24-year insurgency in the CHT that sought autonomy for the Chakmas and 12 other indigenous tribes and killed 8,500 soldiers, rebels, and civilians. A February Amnesty International report said the government had not fully implemented some of the accord's main provisions, including the rehabilitation of refugees, return of land confiscated from tribal people, and withdrawal of nonpermanent army camps.
Roughly 260,000 Rohingya refugees fleeing forced labor, discrimination, and other abuses in Burma entered Bangladesh in 1991 and 1992; some 20,000 Rohingya refugees and 100,000 other Rohingyas not documented as refugees remain in Bangladesh. In recent years, authorities have turned back many arrivals at the border. Bangladesh also hosts some 300,000 Urdu-speaking Biharis, who were rendered stateless at independence in 1971 and seek repatriation to Pakistan.
According to the U.S. State Department, nongovernmental human rights organizations report that they face some harassment by government intelligence agents, ruling party activists, and Muslim religious leaders. 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. Unions are largely prohibited in the two export-processing zones. The law prohibits many civil servants from joining unions; these workers can form associations that are prohibited from bargaining collectively. The Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union is one of the few diligent, nonpartisan unions. The estimated 1.5 million women working in the garment industry continued to face dangerous working conditions, sexual harassment, and anti-union discrimination. Garment exports earned $4 billion in the year ending in June 1999. UNICEF reported in 1999 that at least 6.3 million children under age 14 are working in Bangladesh, mostly as maids, servants, farm workers, or rickshaw pullers.
Aid donors frequently blame corruption, a weak rule of law, limited bureaucratic transparency, and political polarization for undermining economic development. Moreover, heavy flooding in September 2000 displaced tens of thousands of people from their homes.