Covering events from January - December 2003

Torture remained widespread. At least 13 detainees died in police custody. Police used unnecessary or disproportionate force against demonstrators, injuring hundreds of people, some critically. Over 130 people were sentenced to death. Two men were executed. Harassment of human rights defenders continued. Rape and other violence against women was widely reported.


Dozens of people died in violence during and after local elections in the first quarter of the year. Several opposition politicians were assassinated. Corruption and poor governance remained key factors blocking economic prosperity. The government reportedly pressured judges to dismiss criminal charges against ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party supporters. Most sessions of parliament were boycotted by the main opposition party, the Awami League.


The government failed to implement safeguards against torture. Victims included suspected criminals, children and people detained on politically motivated grounds. At least 13 people died in police custody. The police reportedly denied allegations that their deaths were the result of torture.

  • Following his release from police custody on 5 January, senior journalist Enamul Haque Chowdhury said that he was beaten, tortured with electric shocks, and threatened with death at gunpoint. Arrested on 13 December 2002, he was accused of misquoting the Home Minister in a news agency report. No official investigation was initiated into his allegations of torture.
  • Abdul Gaffar, 45, a day labourer from Ekbarpur village in Mougachhi area of Rajshahi, died on 6 May in police custody. He had reportedly been beaten with batons and rifle butts to compel him to reveal the whereabouts of a suspect. A three-member police committee, formed following protests by villagers, failed to hold responsible any of the officers involved in his death.

Police brutality

Police continued to use excessive force during opposition or trade union demonstrations. Hundreds of protesters were injured, some critically. No officers were known to have been brought to justice for these attacks.

  • On 10 October officers attacked and beat unemployed and student nurses from 38 government nursing institutions who were protesting against changes in their terms and conditions of employment. When demonstrators tried to enter the Directorate of Nursing Services, police officers beat them. Over 50 nurses were reportedly injured, most of them women, and 23 were admitted to hospital, three of them in a critical condition.

Death penalty

Courts sentenced to death more than 130 men and women. Most death sentences were passed by Speedy Trial Tribunals, which were required to conclude trials within 135 days, increasing the risk of convictions based on flawed evidence. Two men were hanged on 10 July.

Arbitrary detention

Following repeated High Court orders and international appeals, some prominent political detainees were released in January. They included human rights defenders Shahriar Kabir, Professor Muntasir Mamun and Saleem Samad, as well as Awami League leaders Bahauddin Nasim, Saber Hossain Chowdhury and Tofael Ahmed. However, they continued to suffer harassment and threats of detention.

  • In June, warrants of arrests were issued against Mahfuz Anam, editor and publisher of the Daily Star newspaper; Matiur Rahman, editor of the Daily Prothom Alo newspaper; and Abdul Jalil, Secretary General of the Awami League. A senior government official had brought a criminal defamation case against them after publication of a letter in which Abdul Jalil criticized the nomination of the official to an executive post in an international organization. They were not detained but the arrest warrants remained pending.

Violence against women

Reports of rape were widespread, including of young children. There were frequent reports of women being beaten by their husbands, sometimes with fatal results. The perpetrators were often husbands whose demands for dowry had not been met. Scores of women were victims of acid attacks, usually by rejected partners or people settling scores with the victims' families. Some 20,000 women and children were reportedly trafficked to other countries, usually after abduction from rural areas.

Women's rights groups blamed the low rate of convictions for violence against women on a lack of government institutions to support the victims and a lack of trained police officers to investigate the cases.

  • On 26 August, nine women from tribal communities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts were reported to have been sexually assaulted by Bengali settlers who attacked Jumma villages and set fire to hundreds of homes. One of them was reportedly gang-raped. Army connivance in the attacks was suspected. Attempts by the tribal people to file a complaint with the police against the attacks were not successful, while police filed a complaint on behalf of Bengali settlers against 4,000 tribal people, accusing them of attacking the settlers.

Attacks against Hindus

In an apparently planned arson attack on a Hindu family in Banskhali Upazila near Chittagong around midnight on 19 November, 11 members of the family were burned to death. The government called it an act of banditry, but evidence suggested it was a motivated attack against the family because of their identity as Hindus. Police filed a case but despite repeated demands from civil society groups, no independent inquiry was set up.

Attacks against Ahmadis

From October onwards, Islamist groups embarked on a campaign of hate speech against members of the Ahmadiyya community and marched on their places of worship in Dhaka and other parts of the country, calling on the government to declare them non-Muslim. The government deployed security personnel to protect Ahmadis against attacks but took no action against those using hate speech.

  • On 31 October, Shah Alam, the Imam of the Ahmadi mosque in the village of Raghanathpur Bank in Jessore District, was beaten to death in front of his family. Some 90 men led by a local Islamist leader attacked him because he refused their demand to recant his Ahmadiyya faith. No one was charged in connection with the killing even though the assailants' identities were known.


Immunity from prosecution was granted to officials and army personnel associated with human rights violations during the anti-crime "Operation Clean Heart" from 17 October 2002 to 9 January 2003. At least 40 men died, reportedly as a result of torture, after being detained by soldiers.

AI country visits

AI delegates visited Bangladesh in November and December to conduct research.

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