Dozens of prisoners of conscience were detained after a series of opposition strikes and demonstrations. They were held without charge or trial for several weeks under special legislation. There were at least 13 deaths in custody reportedly as a result of torture. One woman was believed to have "disappeared". At least 14 people were reportedly extrajudicially executed by the police. Courts sentenced two people to death. No executions were reported. February elections, boycotted by the major opposition parties, were won by the ruling Bangladesh National Party (BNP), led by the then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, but with a low turnout. The campaign against the government continued, and was at times violent. Dozens of political activists were killed and hundreds more injured in clashes between opposition and government supporters. In March, the Constitution was amended to allow for parliamentary elections under caretaker governments. The BNP government resigned and a caretaker government was appointed. Fresh elections were called in June. The Awami League won the majority of seats and its leader, Sheikh Hasina Wajid, was sworn in as Prime Minister. Former Chief Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed was elected President. In November, parliament repealed the Indemnity Ordinance, which had granted immunity from prosecution for those involved in the assassination of the first President of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and members of his family, in a military coup in August 1975. Several former army officers and a former state minister were arrested in connection with the killings. In October, the government announced the establishment of a National Committee on the Chittagong Hill Tracts to find a lasting solution to the conflict there, but no major breakthrough in talks between the government and tribal representatives was reported. A periodically extended cease-fire was broken on several occasions throughout the year. Dozens of prisoners of conscience were among hundreds of people detained under the Special Powers Act, which allowed for detention without charge or trial for an indefinite period. Senior Awami League politician Begum Motia Chowdhury was arrested with five opposition activists in February following a three-day strike. She was detained for several weeks until the High Court declared her detention unlawful. The charges against Taslima Nasrin, the feminist writer charged with outraging religious sentiments, were not dropped (see Amnesty International Reports 1995 and 1996). As in previous years, court hearings were adjourned. Tens of thousands of people were arrested throughout the year during a police operation to recover illegally held weapons. Many were not informed of the grounds for their detention, and most were released uncharged after days or weeks as the police could not substantiate charges against them. Some of those arrested for alleged possession of firearms were tortured. At least 13 prisoners reportedly died in custody following torture. Hundreds more were subjected to beatings. In October, a man died reportedly after being beaten by police in a village in Sylhet district. He and a number of others had protested against the arrest of a fellow villager. Two police officers involved in the beating were suspended, but no criminal charges were brought against them. Police frequently beat anti-government demonstrators, and journalists covering demonstrations. In January, police reportedly beat scores of students during a raid on the Jagannath Hall student residence at Dhaka University. In February, police punched and kicked several journalists who attempted to photograph police shootings and beatings. At least seven incidents of rape in custody by security forces were reported. In October, four policemen reportedly raped a 17-year-old girl in a police station in Chittagong while she was held in custody overnight. They were arrested after a medical report established evidence consistent with rape, and detained while the police reportedly initiated an investigation. The trial of three police officers charged with the rape and murder of 14-year-old Yasmin Akhter in 1995 (see Amnesty International Report 1996) began in October but had not concluded by the end of the year. Kalpana Chakma, a tribal women's rights activist, reportedly "disappeared" in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in June. Security personnel reportedly took her from her home. A government-appointed commission of inquiry had not reported its findings by the end of the year and her whereabouts remained unknown. At least 14 people were believed to have been extrajudicially executed. Ten were killed in March when the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles opened fire on anti-government demonstrators in several districts. No official inquiry to establish responsibility for these killings was carried out. Four people were killed in August when police in Bogra opened fire on crowds during two days of unrest between government and opposition supporters. An inquiry commission was set up, but had not reported its findings by the end of the year. At least two people were sentenced to death, both of them for murder. No executions were reported. The armed opposition group Shanti Bahini (Peace Force) reportedly abducted and killed 28 woodcutters in Rangamati district in September following a dispute over tariffs demanded by Shanti Bahini on the collection of timber. Amnesty International appealed to the successive governments of Bangladesh to release all prisoners of conscience and to drop the charges against Taslima Nasrin. It also called for the fate and whereabouts of Kalpana Chakma to be established and for the institution of impartial and independent inquiries into all reports of human rights violations. In February, Amnesty International issued a report, Bangladesh: Beating and arbitrary detention of religious minority students. No substantive response was received from the authorities during the year.

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