Scores of political activists were detained without charge or trial under the Special Powers Act (SPA). Torture, including rape, in custody was widespread and led to at least one death. At least 24 people were sentenced to death. No executions were reported.

In March the Awami League government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina reached an agreement with the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) to end its six-month boycott of parliament. The government agreed to review criminal charges pending against BNP activists. Supporters of the ruling and opposition parties clashed frequently during the year in strikes and demonstrations that were often violent.

In the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), steps were taken to implement the peace accord reached by the government and tribal representatives. Throughout February members of the armed opposition group Shanti Bahini (Peace Force) surrendered their weapons in exchange for an amnesty and rehabilitation. In May parliament passed legislation for the establishment of a regional council granting more political autonomy to the area. By the end of the year the last of some 50,000 refugees living in camps in India had been repatriated to the CHT.

The trial of those accused of killing former President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his close relatives in a military coup in 1975 concluded in November. Fifteen people were convicted and sentenced to death by firing squad. Four appealed against the judgment, but their petitions had not been heard by the end of the year. In September, three senior BNP politicians were arrested in connection with the killing of four national leaders inside Dhaka Central Jail in November 1975. In October they were charged in connection with the killings, along with 20 others, including Major Khairuzzaman who had been held for over two years without charge or trial (see Amnesty International Report 1998).

No further steps were taken by the government towards the establishment of a national human rights commission after a draft bill was made public in December 1997.

In October Bangladesh acceded to international human rights instruments, including the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The SPA, which allows detention without charge or trial for an indefinite period, continued to be used to detain scores of political activists, often during demonstrations. Most were released after several days or weeks. Several people were reportedly arrested at the instigation of politically influential individuals on false charges. In January, for example, three men were arrested following an altercation with the son of a government minister in a street in Dhaka, the capital. The minister's son threatened to punish the three men and they were later arrested at their homes by police accompanied by relatives of the minister's son. While in custody the officer in charge of the police station reportedly allowed the elder brother of the government minister's son and two other armed men to enter the room where the three men were detained and beat them. In February the three men were released after the Home Minister withdrew the SPA detention order and dropped the charges.

In September the writer Taslima Nasrin returned to Bangladesh after four years of self-imposed exile. Charges of hurting "religious sentiments" brought against her in 1994 (see previous Amnesty International Reports) remained pending. However, calls for her arrest by Islamists were ignored by the authorities. In November she was granted bail after appearing in court. No further legal developments in her case were reported.

Torture in police custody remained widespread. In July a student, Shamim Reza Rubel, was allegedly beaten to death in police custody five hours after being arrested at his home in Dhaka. According to the autopsy report he suffered a brain haemorrhage. Following an investigation by the Criminal Investigation Department, 13 policemen and a local Awami League leader were charged in connection with his death. A judicial inquiry into the case confirmed that Shamim Reza Rubel's death was not accidental, although the full findings of the commission were not made public by the end of the year.

At least three cases of rape in custody by the security forces were reported, in addition to the rape of a 10-year-old girl by an off-duty policeman in April in Dhaka. In one case, a policeman and another man were arrested for the attempted rape of a 15-year-old girl on the premises of the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate's Court in Dhaka in May. They were later released on bail. There were no reports of any police officer being tried or convicted of rape during the year. The government's appeal against the court decision to acquit four police officers accused of raping Shima Chowdhury in 1996 had not been heard by the end of the year (see Amnesty International Reports 1997 and 1998).

At least 23 men and one woman were sentenced to death for murder. No executions were reported.

Throughout the year Amnesty International expressed concern about torture in police custody and urged the government to take steps to eradicate the practice. In April Amnesty International published a report on children in South Asia appealing to all South Asian governments, including Bangladesh, to take concrete steps to protect children both in custody and in the community and to fully implement the provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Bangladesh ratified in 1990. The organization called on the government to ensure the safety of the writer Taslima Nasrin who was subject to renewed threats from Islamists after she returned to the country. It also urged that the charges against her be dropped.

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