Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1997.
Bangladesh is a parliamentary democracy headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, leader of the Awami League, which came to power in national elections in June. Major opposition parties include the previous ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the Jatiyo Party and Jamaat-E-Islami. Elections under the BNP in February were boycotted by all other major parties (which demanded that the BNP hand over power to a neutral caretaker administration) and marred by rigging and violence. Faced with mounting antigovernment agitation, the Parliament in March passed a constitutional amendment requiring a caretaker regime for all future general parliamentary elections. The June elections, under a caretaker government headed by a retired Chief Justice, were deemed to be generally free and fair by domestic and international observers. Although the BNP blamed its losses on vote-rigging by the Awami League and partisan government employees, it nonetheless joined Parliament as the largest opposition party. The judiciary displays a high degree of independence.
The Home Affairs Ministry controls the police and paramilitary forces, which bear primary responsibility for maintaining internal security. The army and paramilitary forces are responsible for security in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), where a tribal group has waged a low-level insurgency since 1974. A cease-fire between government forces and insurgents generally held throughout the year; however, there were sporadic violations. Police officers committed a number of serious human rights abuses.
Bangladesh is a poor country. Annual per capita income is approximately $250; about 43 percent of the country's 123 million people exist on incomes insufficient to meet minimum daily needs. Eighty percent of the work force is involved in agriculture, which accounts for approximately one-third of the gross domestic product. There is a growing industrial sector, based largely on the manufacture of garments, textiles, industrial goods such as rerolled steel, cement, and jute. There is a small wealthy elite, and a middle class is emerging. Efforts to reform the economy have been hampered by political turmoil and the opposition of public sector enterprises, government bureaucrats, and other vested interests.
The Government continues to restrict or deny many fundamental rights. Police committed extrajudicial killings, and 17 detainees reportedly died in police custody. Police routinely use torture and other forms of abuse in interrogating suspects. The Government rarely convicts and punishes those responsible for torture or unlawful deaths. The Government continues to use national security laws to detain political opponents and other citizens without formal charge. A large case backlog slows the judicial process, and lengthy pretrial detention is a problem. The Government places some limitations on freedom of assembly. Women, minorities, the disabled, religious minorities, and indigenous people face societal discrimination. Violence against women and prostitution and trafficking of children remain serious problems. The Government continues to limit worker rights, and child labor is a problem.
RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing
There were numerous extrajudicial killings during the year. In the western city of Bogra, from August 22 to 25, violence between police and students lead to the death of three students and a police officer. The violence began when, following the death of a student in a traffic accident, other students staged a violent demonstration and attacked buses. Police then fired on the demonstrators, killing two students, and the demonstrators in turn shot and killed a police officer. During a confrontation the next day at the police station, police shot and killed another student. The firings wound many other persons. The Government established a judicial investigation committee, which has yet to issue a report. While in this well-publicized case the Government compensated the families of those killed, and withdrew several police officers from the post, a general climate of police impunity from punishment remains a serious obstacle to ending police abuse and extrajudicial killings.
According to human rights monitors, 17 persons died while in custody in the first 9 months of 1996. According to the Government, six persons died in custody, but there was no evidence that any died from mistreatment. However, numerous press and human rights reports concerning police abuse and deaths of prisoners indicate that this claim is inaccurate and masks serious abuse. For example, in July police reportedly beat to death two men in their custody in Dhaka. In October police reportedly tortured to death an activist of the BNP youthwing, the Jatiybadi Jubo Dal, in Dhaka.
Violence, often resulting in killings, is a pervasive element in the political process. Demonstrators from all parties, and even within parties, often clash with police and with each other during rallies and demonstrations. The year was marked by widespread political violence leading to numerous deaths. In June journalist and Awami League member S. M. Alauddin was killed, possibly due to factional fighting within the party (see Section 2.a.). BNP activists used deadly force to disrupt opposition party gatherings. The Awami League, and other opposition parties, used armed violence and intimidation to enforce their boycott of the February national elections and to enforce numerous general strikes. They similarly disrupted BNP gatherings and government activities. The violence perpetrated by both sides resulted in more than 100 deaths, hundreds of injuries, extensive property damage, and large business losses across the country.
Violence among student political groups, allied with the major national parties, is endemic and reportedly resulted in at least 12 deaths, hundreds of injuries, and the closure of dozens of educational institutions. For example, in August struggles between rival student groups for control of dormitories resulted in approximately 100 injuries and the closure of Dhaka University for 20 days. In September a clash between student activists of rival parties in Cox's Bazar led to one shooting death, and a day-long hartal (general strike) stopping commerce and movement in that town.
In 1995 the Government charged former President Hossain Mohammed Ershad with ordering the 1981 murder of the alleged assassin of President Ziaur Rahman. Previously held in Dhaka central jail, Ershad is currently held in converted quarters (a "subjail") within the Parliament compound. He was moved there by the new Awami League government in July, when Parliament convened. He enjoys periods of 24-hour parole to attend Parliament sessions (he was elected as a Member of Parliament for the second time in June), although he cannot leave the Parliament premises. The murder case is not being actively pursued by the Government. Ershad was already serving a 20-year sentence for corruption (see Section 1.c.).
In August the Government arrested under the Special Powers Act (SPA) retired Lt. Colonel Farook Rahman, the self-confessed organizer of the 1975 assassination of Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The Government initially told the press that Farook was suspected of illegal weapons possession and plotting to assassinate government officials; later, however, it officially accused him with the 1975 killings in Dhaka Central Jail of four Awami League leaders. Two alleged accomplices in the 1975 murders were arrested at the same time as Farook. Several diplomats were also recalled from abroad as suspected coconspirators (see Section 1.c.).
There was one possible incident of politically motivated disappearance during the year. On June 12, Kalpana Chakma, Central Organizing Secretary of the Hill Womens' Federation, an organization of tribal people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, disappeared from her house. Witnesses and human rights monitors allege that the army abducted her, but one human rights group reported that she was alive in India. The Government formed an investigative committee which has yet to issue any findings.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the Constitution prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment, police routinely employ psychological and physical torture and other abuse during arrests and interrogations. Torture may consist of threats, beatings, and, occasionally, the use of electric shock. The Government rarely convicts or punishes those responsible for torture, and a climate of impunity allows such police abuses to continue.
Police brutality occurs regularly, and government inaction allows it to continue. In January police raided a dormitory at Dhaka University inhabited mainly by ethnic and religious minority students, ostensibly to search for illegal weapons. The dormitory was well-known as a stronghold of the Awami League Student Front Organization. Police reportedly used excessive force, and more than 200 students were injured. In June police attacked and injured at least 30 journalists who were covering the swearing-in of new members of Parliament.
Numerous press and human rights monitors' reports indicate that police abuse of detainees is a widespread problem and fequently results in death (see Section 1.a.). Lt. Col. Farook Rahman was arrested on August 13 under the SPA, and later accused in connection with the 1975 deaths in Dhaka Central Jail of four senior Awami League party officials. During his 32 days in police remand, the police refused to grant his family and lawyers access to him. According to unconfirmed press reports and sources close to his family, he was subjected to various forms of torture.
Rape in police custody is also a problem. In July a police officer in a village near Dinajpur reportedly raped a woman. In October four police officers raped a woman they had arrested near Chittagong. In this case, the four officers were suspended from their positions and arrested. The press reported seven instances of rape in police custody during the first 9 months of the year, but women's rights activists estimate that the real number was several times higher.
Most prisons are overcrowded and lack adequate facilities. The current prison population, nearly 45,000 in August, is more than double the official prison capacity. There are three classes of cells: A, B, and C. Common criminals and low-level political workers are generally held in C cells, which often have dirt floors, no furnishings, and poor quality food. The use of restraining devices on prisoners in these cells is common. Prisoners in the C cells reportedly suffer the worst abuses, including beatings or being forced to kneel for long periods. Conditions in B and A cells are markedly better; A cells are reserved for prominent prisoners.
A government-appointed committee of private citizens monitors prisons monthly but does not release its findings. In general, the Government does not permit prison visits by independent human rights monitors but does make occasional exceptions.
Former President Ershad is serving a 20-year sentence for corruption. He was also charged during 1995 with the 1981 murder of the alleged assassin of President Zia (see Section 1.a.). Ershad's treatment and condition came under scrutiny in late 1995 due to complaints from his family about inadequate medical care to treat his health problems (hepatitis), and poor living conditions. His health slowly improved, however, and the Government insisted that it was providing treatment equal to or better than that of any local hospital. In July the Government moved Ershad to a sub-jail within the Parliament compound.
d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile
Both the BNP and Awami League Governments continued to use national security legislation, namely the Special Powers Act (SPA) of 1974, to detain citizens without formal charges or specific complaint being filed against them. Past governments have vowed to abolish the SPA, but so far there has been no action.
Under the SPA, the Government or a district magistrate may, to prevent the commission of an act likely "to prejudice the security of the country", order anyone detained for 30 days. The Government (or magistrate) must within 15 days inform the detainee of the grounds for detention, and the Government must within 30 days approve the grounds for detention or release the detainee. In practice, detainees are sometimes held for longer periods without the Government stating the grounds for the detention or formally approving it. Detainees may appeal their detention, and the Government may grant early release.
After 4 months, an advisory board composed of two persons who have been, or are qualified to be High Court judges, and one civil servant examines cases of detainees. If the Government adequately defends its detention order, the detainee remains imprisoned; if not, the detainee is released. Detainees are allowed to consult with lawyers while in detention, although usually not until a charge is filed. Detainees may receive visitors, and incommunicado detention is generally not practiced. However, the Government has held incommunicado some prominent prisoners, notably Lt. Col. Farook Rahman. In addition, it several times extended Farook's time in police remand (see Section 1.c.).
According to the Government, the authorities detained more than 3,600 persons under the SPA during the first 9 months of the year, approximately 1,400 during the BNP government (January to March) and 1,250 following the elections (July to September). As of September, the courts had ordered about 2,700 detainees released. Government figures indicate that almost 1,000 persons were in detention under the SPA at the end of September. Human rights monitors and political activists charge that both the BNP and Awami League governments have used the SPA as a tool to harass and intimidate political opponents. They claim that both governments arrested hundreds of opposition activitists under the SPA, most being later released when no charges could be brought. Actual numbers of party activists arrested were not verifiable.
In February the Government arrested five senior opposition party leaders under the SPA, including the Awami League mayor of Chittagong. All were released within 2 weeks.
The Government allowed another widely used statute, the Anti-Terrorism Act, to expire in 1994. However, 120 cases filed under this act were still pending on September 30, and 52 cases came to trial during the first 9 months of the year.
The Government does not use forced exile.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The judiciary displays a high degree of independence, as mandated by the Constitution, especially at the higher levels. The judiciary often rules against the Government in criminal, civil, and even politically controversial cases.
The court system has two levels, the lower courts and the Supreme Court. Both hear civil and criminal cases. The lower court consists of magistrates, who are part of the administrative branch of government, and session judges, who belong to the judicial branch. The Supreme Court is divided into two sections, the High Court and the Appellate Court. The High Court hears original cases and also reviews cases from the lower court. The Appellate Court has jurisdiction to hear appeals of judgments, decrees, orders, or sentences of the High Court. Rulings of the Appellate Court are binding on all other courts.
Trials are public. The law provides the accused with the right to be represented by counsel, to review accusatory material, to call witnesses, and to appeal verdicts. In practice, the largely rural, illiterate population does not always understand these rights, nor do the authorities always respect them. There is a system of bail, and bail is commonly granted for both violent and nonviolent crimes. However, if bail is not granted, the law does not specify a time limit on pretrial detention. State-funded defense attorneys are rarely provided, and there are few legal aid programs to offer financial assistance.
There is corruption within the legal process. Small sums must be paid to a number of court officials in order for a civil suit to be filed. While these may appear to be processing fees, they are more in the nature of bribes; they are not established by statute or regulation, are paid to officials personally, and there is no accountability for failure to discharge duties paid for. Defendants can sometimes pay to avoid being served with a notice or suit. Because of the difficulty accessing the courts and because litigation is time-consuming, alternate dispute resolution by traditional village leaders is popular in rural communities.
A major problem of the court system is the overwhelming backlog of cases. According to government testimony in Parliament, about 720,000 cases in July were pending in criminal and civil courts (almost a 50 percent increase from 1995), and more than 30,000 people, or 67 percent of the country's total prison population, were awaiting trial. Government sources show that the period between detention and trial averages 6 months, but press and human rights groups report many instances of pretrial detention lasting for several years. These conditions, and the corruption encountered in the judicial process, effectively prevent many people from obtaining a fair trial or justice.
The Government claims that it holds no political prisoners, but both the BNP and Awami League charge that their activists have been arrested under the SPA for political reasons (see Section 2.d.).
f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law requires authorities to obtain a judicial warrant before entering a home. However, according to human rights monitors, police rarely obtain warrants, and officers violating the procedure are not punished. In addition, the SPA permits searches without a warrant. The Government reportedly opens international mail and monitors telephone calls on occasion.
g. Use of Excessive Force and Violations of Humanitarian Law in Internal Conflicts
The Shanti Bahini, a tribal group, has waged a low-level conflict in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) since the early 1970's to deter nontribal Bengali settlers who seek to exploit the Tracts' fertile and sparsely populated land. Government settlement programs increased the number of Bengali inhabitants in the CHT from 3 percent of the region's total population in 1947 to an estimated 48 percent in 1996. Although the Government prohibits further settlement of the area except for the purpose of starting a business, such as rubber planting, citizens from the flatlands continue to arrive.
All of the groups that participate in or are affected by the conflict--indigenous tribes, settlers, and security forces--have accused each other of human rights violations. It is difficult to verify facts in specific incidents because government travel restrictions, tight security, difficult terrain, and unsafe conditions created by the insurgency limit access to the area.
In September the most violent incident occurred in several years of conflict. Twenty-eight Bengali woodcutters were abducted by the Shanti Bahini and murdered, possibly the result of a dispute over payment of "tolls" (protection money extorted by the Shanti Bahini). A government-appointed committee is investigating the killings.
In other violence related to the Chittagong Hills conflict, several police officers, soldiers, rebels, and noncombatants were killed during the first 9 months of the year.
During the political turmoil of the first half of the year, there was little progress in the Government's talks with Shanti Bahini's political wing, the Jana Sanghati Samiti (JSS). However, the two sides agreed at short regular intervals to extend their cease-fire. Talks between the two groups resumed in late December, during which they extended the cease-fire until March 31, 1997.
The Government estimates that 45,000 Chakma tribal members fled the conflict in the CHT and sought shelter in refugee camps in India. Few of them returned to Bangladesh in 1996. The Shanti Bahini allegedly discouraged refugees from repatriating, and organizations based in the hills claim that returnees face persecution by the Government. Government officials claim that voluntary refugee returns, although small in number, increased slightly from the previous year and that the Government assisted returned refugees in their resettlement.
Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The Constitution provides for freedom of speech, expression, and the press, subject to "reasonable restrictions" in the interest of security, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency, and morality, or to prohibit defamation or incitement to an offense. With some exceptions the Government generally respects freedom of speech. On occasion the BNP government censored criticism of Islam.
Following the boycotted February elections, the press played a key role in persuading the BNP Government to turn over power to a caretaker government in April, setting the stage for the national elections in June, won by the Awami League. Demonstrations in front of the National Press Club in Dhaka and nationwide strikes were widely reported. Candidates from dozens of political parties campaigned freely prior to the June elections, and in several subsequent by-elections. Allegations by the BNP of Awami League voter fraud in September by-election balloting in two constituencies were reported openly in the press. The BNP regularly stages walk-outs of parliamentary sessions and threatens noncooperation with the Government, all of which is widely reported in the press.
There is one government-owned and one privately owned wire service that distribute news nationally. In September the Awami League reportedly issued verbal guidance to the government wire service to allow stories that are critical of the Government but not those that are "atrocious" or "unfairly overly critical."
Newspaper ownership and content are not subject to direct government restriction. The press, numbering hundreds of daily and weekly publications, is a forum for a wide range of views. Newsprint is allocated from government factories at subsidized prices. Papers that cannot obtain enough government newsprint to meet their needs must buy it on the open market at higher prices. On occasion government favoritism in allocating newsprint is alleged. An acute shortage of newsprint in early 1996 resulted in many newspapers reducing the number of their pages.
Some editors complain that the Government places advertising to reward supporters and punish critical newspapers, a practice that fosters self-censorship.
Foreign publications are subject to censorship. When enforced, this is most often for immodest or obscene photographs or perceived misrepresentation of Islam.
In August the Awami League Government allowed the circulation of the Indian-published Bengali language magazine Desh. It had been banned since 1994 for publishing an article containing comments perceived to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Bangladesh.
The Government owns and controls radio and television, which under both the BNP and Awami League have provided more extensive and favorable coverage to the ruling party than to the opposition. While several local business people have expressed interest in establishing private radio and television stations, there are no indications that this is likely to happen in the near future. However, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the Cable News Network (CNN) international news and features are retransmitted live and uncensored for several hours each day. There are no restrictions on the installation of satellite dishes, which are widely owned both in Dhaka and throughout the country, including remote villages.
The Government's film censor board did not ban any films during the year; however, in past years the board banned several locally produced and foreign films, usually on the grounds that the films promoted immorality. The film censor board also considers issues of state security, law and order, religious sentiment, foreign relations, defamation of a person, and plagiarism in deciding whether to ban a film.
In June S.M. Alauddin, editor of the Khulna newsweekly Patradut, was killed in the town of Satkhira. Alauddin was a member of the ruling Awami League, which the week before had gained power. Five persons were arrested in connection with the murder, but speculation persists that others escaped and that the killing was the result of factional fighting within the party.
In June at least 30 journalists were injured at the Parliament building when baton-wielding police charged reporters and photographers covering the oathtaking of newly elected members of Parliament from the Jatiyo Party.
In September, following the by-election in which the opposition BNP lost seats, several BNP activists assaulted eight photographers covering a BNP rally in Dhaka near Bangla Motor Crossing. They also threatened to seek out journalists from a newspaper critical of the BNP. BNP officials condemned the attack while blaming it on Awami League infiltrators.
Feminist author Taslima Nasreen, whose writings and statements provoked death threats from some Islamic groups in 1993 and 1994, has remained abroad since her departure for Europe in 1994. The Government charged Nasreen in 1994 under a section of the Penal Code that stipulates punishment for anyone convicted of intentionally insulting religious beliefs, but it did not actively pursue its case against her during 1996. The Government has taken no action against those who issued death threats against Nasreen, even though such threats also violate the law.
Academic freedom is generally respected. Teachers and students at all levels are free to pursue academic assignments except on extremely sensitive religious and political topics.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The Constitution provides for freedom of assembly, subject to restrictions in the interest of public order and public health. The Government sometimes prohibits rallies for security reasons.
Both the Government and opposition parties frequently interfere with each other's rallies and public meetings. Throughout the year partisans of the ruling and opposition parties used violence to disrupt political gatherings. In addition, both have used a statute that allows public assemblies to be prohibited--to prevent possible violence--if two or more parties have scheduled rallies for the same time and place. Political parties, after learning of planned opposing-party public gatherings, schedule other rallies for the same time and place, in hopes of forcing authorities to cancel both events.
The Constitution provides for the right of every citizen to form associations, subject to "reasonable restrictions" in the interest of morality or public order, and in general the Government respects this right. In practice, individuals are free to join private groups, but a local magistrate must approve public meetings.
c. Freedom of Religion
The Constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but also stipulates the right to practice the religion of one's choice, and the Government respects this provision in practice. Approximately 88 percent of the 123 million population is Muslim. Some members of the Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist minorities continue to perceive and experience discrimination toward them from the majority community (see Section 5).
The law permits citizens to proselytize. However, strong social resistance to conversion from Islam means that many of the missionary efforts by non-Muslims are aimed at Hindus and tribal groups. The Government allows various religions to establish places of worship, train clergy, travel for religious purposes, and maintain links with coreligionists abroad. Foreign missionaries may work in Bangladesh, but their right to proselytize is not protected by the Constitution, and proselytization is frequently discouraged by the Government. Missionaries sometimes face problems in obtaining visas.
d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation
Citizens are able to move freely within the country. Travel by foreigners is restricted in the CHT and some other border areas. Citizens are generally free to travel abroad and emigrate. The right of repatriation is generally observed.
Approximately 250,000 Rohingyas (Muslims from Burma's Arakan province) crossed into southeastern Bangladesh in late 1991 and early 1992, fleeing repression. Following voluntary repatriation efforts by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), approximately 31,000 Rohingyas remain in the area of Cox's Bazar. The UNHCR estimates that the majority of the remaining refugees will repatriate in 1996; however, repatriation efforts were slowed by reports early in the year of violence and other abuse inside Burma against returning refugees and by the limited number of clearances issued by Burmese authorities.
During the first 5 months of 1996 another influx of Rohingyas arrived. Estimates of their numbers vary from 6,000 to 15,000, and most are thought to be living in villages and towns in the southeast. Many other Rohingyas, considered by both the BNP and Awami League governments to be economic migrants rather than refugees, were reportedly forced back into Burma by Bangladesh security forces. On April 20, 15 Rohingyas drowned near Teknaf when their boat capsized after Bangladeshi security forces ordered it back to Burma.
In August about 200 people, reported to be Bangladeshis working illegally in Pakistan, were forced back to Pakistan when they attempted to enter Bangladesh. The Government said that they carried false passports, denied their claim to citizenship, and excluded them from the country without judicial process. This occurred despite efforts by their local family members to persuade the Government that the returnees were citizens.
There are about 238,000 non-Bengali Muslims, known as Biharis, who have remained in Bangladesh since 1971 awaiting settlement in Pakistan.
Bangladesh is not a party to the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. The Government generally cooperates with the UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. The law does not provide for first asylum or resettlement of asylum seekers. However, the Government does in practice grant temporary asylum to individual asylum seekers whom the UNHCR has interviewed and recognized as refugees, on a case by case basis. At the request of the UNHCR, the Government has allowed about 200 asylum seekers, mostly from Somalia and Iran, to remain in Bangladesh for several years, until they can arrange their resettlement in a third country. In the case of the early 1996 Rohingya arrivals and attempted arrivals, the Government effectively denied first asylum by catagorizing them as illegal economic migrants, denying the UNHCR official access to those that did successfully enter Bangladesh, jailing at least 200 of them with common criminials, and turning back as many as possible at the border. Abuses such as the forced return and mistreatment of individual refugees already living in UNHCR camps have been reported, but these appear to be the exception rather than the rule. Nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) with access to the camps claimed that the new arrivals had fled various hardships and mistreatment, including forced labor.
Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government
Bangladesh is a multiparty, parliamentary democracy in which elections by secret ballot are held on the basis of universal suffrage. Members of Parliament are elected at least every 5 years. The Parliament has 300 elected members, with 30 additional seats reserved for women, who are in turn elected by Parliament.
Bangladesh held national elections twice in 1996, in February and June. Since March 1994, when opposition parties accused the BNP of intimidation and vote-rigging in a parliamentary by-election, the Parliament had been attended only by BNP Members of Parliament. The combined opposition parties, led by the Awami League under Sheikh Hasina, first boycotted Parliament and later resigned their seats (146 in all), demanding that general elections be held under a neutral caretaker administration. Despite the boycott, resignations, and continuing agitation programs (rallies, demonstrations, transport blockades, and general strikes), the Parliament remained in session until the end of its 5-year term. The February elections, held under the BNP Government, were boycotted and actively resisted by all major opposition parties. Illegal actions by both opposition and ruling party activists marred the election. Opposition parties, led by the Awami League, engaged in widespread intimidation of voters, including attacks on polling places and theft of ballot boxes, in order to reduce turnout. The ruling BNP engaged in ballot-box stuffing to ensure the victory of its candidates. Many BNP candidates were elected unopposed in many constituencies, and the BNP ended up with all but two seats in Parliament.
In the face of increasing pressure from the combined opposition (a continuous general strike or "noncooperation movement" virtually shut down the country for 3 weeks in March), the Parliament drafted and passed a constitutional amendment mandating a neutral caretaker government for future interim periods after the dissolution of Parliament prior to general elections. The BNP then dissolved Parliament and, according to the terms of the amendment, handed over power to a caretaker administration headed by the President. All parties participated in the June elections; domestic and international observers deemed these to be generally free and fair, and high voter turnout set new records for the country. The Awami League won a majority of seats (more than 170, including reserved women's seats) and formed a government. The BNP charged the Awami League and government employees with conspiring to rig the vote, but it nevertheless joined Parliament and, with 113 seats, became the largest opposition party in the country's history.
In addition to the 30 parliamentary seats reserved for women (whose occupants are chosen by Parliament), women are free to contest any seat in Parliament. Seven women were elected in their own right in the June national elections. Seats are not specifically reserved for other minority groups, such as tribal peoples. However, tribal peoples have some parliamentary representation; eight members from minority groups won seats in the last elections.
Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
The Government generally permits human rights groups to conduct their activities. In 1996 such groups published reports, held press conferences, and issued appeals to the Government with regard to specific cases.
The Government is sensitive to international opinion regarding human rights issues. It has been open to dialog with international organizations and foreign diplomatic missions regarding issues such as detention of opposition leaders and problems of trafficking in women and children.
The Government has put pressure on individual human rights advocates. Father Richard Timm, an American Catholic priest and human rights advocate who has worked in Bangladesh for over 40 years, has faced long delays in obtaining a new reentry visa. After his visa's expiration in May, he waited until August before receiving another, valid only until October. Other missionaries who advocate human rights have faced similar problems in the past.
The Government has since 1991 refused to register the Bangladesh section of Amnesty International. However, the Government recently registered the Bangladesh Human Rights Commission's Treatment Center for Trauma Victims. No major incidents of attacks on NGO workers or human rights activists were reported during the year. In past years representatives of local human rights groups have at times been physically attacked by religious extremists, who considered their activities un-Islamic. The Government has failed to bring to justice those who engaged in such violence.
Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status
The Constitution states that "all citizens are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection by the law." In practice, the Government does not strongly enforce laws aimed at eliminating discrimination. In this context, women, children, minority groups, and the disabled often confront social and economic disadvantages.
Violence against women is difficult to quantify because of unreliable statistics, but wife beating appears to be widespread. A widespread and growing awareness of the problem is fostered by the Government, media, and by women's rights organizations.
Much of the violence against women is related to disputes over dowries. According to one human rights group, there were 73 dowry related killings during the first 9 months of the year. Human rights groups and press reports indicate that incidents of vigilantism against women--sometimes led by religious leaders--are common occurrences, particularly in rural areas. These include humiliating, painful punishments, such as whipping of women accused of moral offenses. For example, in January in Habiganj local religious leaders reportedly subjected a woman to 101 lashes for adultery, and in October in Maulvibazar district, a woman reportedly died after being beaten by village leaders for the same offense. Few perpetrators are prosecuted.
The Government has enacted laws specifically prohibiting certain forms of discrimination against women, including the Antidowry Prohibition Act of 1980, the Cruelty to Women Law of 1983, and the Women Repression Law of 1995. Enforcement of these laws is weak, however, especially in rural areas, and the Government seldom prosecutes vigorously those cases that are filed. However, in August the Government accepted a suit against the State by a women's activist group in connection with the 1995 rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl by police officers.
Women remain in a subordinate position in society. The Government has not acted effectively to protect their basic freedoms. Approximately 30 percent of women are literate, compared to 35 to 40 percent of the general population. In recent years, female school enrollment has improved. Approximately 50 percent of primary and secondary school students are female. Women are often unaware of their rights, because of continued high illiteracy rates among adults and unequal educational opportunities. Strong social stigmas and lack of economic means to obtain legal assistance frequently keep women from seeking redress in the courts.
According to the 1961 Muslim Family Ordinance, female heirs receive less inheritance than male heirs, and wives are more restricted in divorce rights. Men are permitted to have up to four wives, although this right is rarely exercised. Laws provide some protection for women against arbitrary divorce and the taking of additional wives by husbands without the first wife's consent, but the protections generally apply only to registered marriages. Marriages in the countryside are often not registered because of ignorance of the law.
While employment opportunities have been stronger for women than for men in the past few years, this is to a large extent due to the growth of the garment industry, in which female workers are prevalent. Programs extending credit to large numbers of rural women have also contributed to greater economic power for them. However, women still occupy only a small fraction of other wage-earning jobs, and hold fewer than 5 percent of government jobs. The Government's policy to include more women in government jobs has had limited effect.
The Government undertakes programs in the areas of primary education, health, and nutrition. The Government made universal primary education mandatory in 1991 but stated that it could not fully implement the law because of a lack of resources. The Government has also initiated programs that offer incentives for female children between the ages of 12 and 16 to remain in school.
Reports from human rights monitors indicate that child abandonment, kidnaping, trafficking for labor bondage, and prostitution continue to be serious and widespread problems. UNICEF recently estimated that there were about 10,000 child prostitutes in Bangladesh. Other estimates have been as high as 29,000. The law does not allow anyone under 18 years of age to engage in prostitution and stipulates a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for persons found guilty of forcing a child into prostitution. However, procurers of minors are rarely prosecuted. Prostitution is legal for those over 18 with government certification. Human rights monitors report that police and local government officials often either ignore prostitution and trafficking, including that of children, or actually profit from it. Awareness of the issue is increasing, and it receives press coverage.
There is extensive trafficking in both women and children, primarily to the Middle East, India, Pakistan, and Southeast Asia, and also within Bangladesh. The trade, which mainly is for purposes of prostitution and labor servitude, is difficult to quantify. Press reports and evidence from human rights monitors indicate that it is widespread. The connivance of officials at various levels allows the trade to function. Enforcement of laws against it is hampered by poor records and easy access to forged identity documents. Most trafficked persons are lured by promises of good jobs or marriage. The BNP and Awami League governments have expressed concern about the problem and have worked with U.N. agencies and nongovernmental organizations to seek ways to combat it.
People with Disabilities
The laws provide for equal treatment and freedom from discrimination for the disabled, but they face social and economic discrimination. The Government has not enacted specific legislation or otherwise mandated accessibility for the disabled.
Tribal peoples, especially in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, have a marginal ability to influence decisions concerning the use of their lands. Until 1985 the Government regularly parceled out land in the Chittagong Hill Tracts to Bengali settlers.
The Government has moved toward granting the tribal peoples more authority in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. In July 1991, tribal-dominated local government councils assumed control over primary education, health, family welfare, and the agricultural extension service, although the real extent of their autonomy is limited. The Government continues to withold from the councils authority in several governmental functions for which they were originally intended, including law and order as well as land use (see Section 1.g.).
Tribal peoples in other areas have reported similar problems of loss of land to Bengali Muslims through questionable legal practices and other means. The Garos, who live in the Madhapur Forest region in north central Bangladesh, have encountered problems in maintaining their cultural traditions and livelihoods in the face of reforestation projects. Human rights monitors in the region claim that the Garos are being harassed and intimidated into leaving their homes to make way for government-run, internationally financed economic development projects.
Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists make up an estimated 10 percent of the population. Although the Government is secular, religion exerts a powerful influence on politics. The Government is sensitive to the Muslim consciousness of the majority of its citizens. However, the Jamaat-E-Islami, the country's largest Islamic political party, went from 18 seats in Parliament after the 1991 elections, to 3 in the June elections. The Awami League Government has not actively sought its political support.
Islamic extremists have occasionally violently attacked women, religious minorities, and development workers. The Government has sometimes failed to denounce, investigate, and prosecute perpetrators of these attacks.
Religious minorities are in practice disadvantaged in such areas as access to government jobs and political office. Selection boards in the government services are often without minority group representation.
Property ownership, particularly among Hindus, has been a contentious issue since independence in 1971, when many Hindus lost landholdings because of anti-Hindu discrimination in the application of the law. Prior to its June election victory, the Awami League promised to repeal the Vested Property Act, the law used to deprive Hindus of their property. However, The Government has so far taken no action. There have been cases of violence directed against religious minority communities that have also resulted in the loss of property. Such intercommunal violence has caused some members of religious minority groups to depart the country. While intercommunal violence occurred infrequently during the year, there were violent incidents in which Hindus were targeted in Chittagong during the June elections.
Section 6 Worker Rights
a. The Right of Association
The Constitution provides for the right to join unions and--with government approval--the right to form a union. Approximately 1.6 million members of the country's total work force of about 45 to 50 million workers belong to unions. Only about 3 million workers are involved in the formal industrial sector. There is a large unreported informal sector, regarding which no reliable labor statistics exist.
For a union to obtain and maintain its registration, 30 percent employee participation in the workplace is required. Moreover, would-be unionists are technically forbidden to engage in many labor "activities" prior to registration. Labor activists have protested that this requirement severely restricts workers' freedom to organize.
With the exception of workers in the railway, postal, telegraph and telephone departments, government civil servants are forbidden to join unions. This ban also applies to security-related government employees such as the military and police. Civil servants forbidden to join unions, such as teachers and nurses, have formed associations that perform functions similar to labor unions, i.e., providing for members' welfare, offering legal services, and airing grievances. Collective bargaining, however, is prohibited. Some workers have formed unregistered unions, particularly university employees and workers in the construction and transport (both public and private) industries.
Ten to 15 percent of Bangladesh's approximately 4,200 labor unions are affiliated with 23 officially registered national trade union (NTU) centers (there are also several unregistered NTU's). There are no legal restrictions on political activities by labor unions, although the calling of nationwide general strikes or transportation blockades by unions is considered a criminal rather than a political act and thus forbidden. Some unions had complained that the BNP government used its Anti-Terrorism Law as a means to suppress both opposition political workers and union members rather than bona fide terrorists. In late 1994, however, the Anti-Terrorism Law lapsed, and the BNP government decided not to renew it. No arrests of labor leaders under the law have been made since 1993.
While unions are not part of the government structure, they are highly politicized. Virtually all the NTU centers are affiliated with political parties, including one with the ruling Awami League. Some unions are militant and engage in intimidation and vandalism. Illegal blockades of public transportation routes by strikers occurred frequently during the year. Pitched battles between members of rival labor unions occur regularly; hundreds were injured (and at least three combatants died) in 1996 in various large jute and textile mills, as well as in the inland water transport and overland transport sectors. Fighting often is over the control of rackets or extortion payoffs and typically involves knives, guns, and homemade bombs.
Workers are eligible for membership on their unions' executive staff, the size of which is set by law in proportion to the number of union members. Registration of a union may only be canceled by the Registrar of Trade Unions with the concurrence of the Labor Court, but no such actions were known to have been taken in 1996. Several cases were filed, invariably by employers claiming a union's membership had fallen below the requisite level, but, because of a backlog and other administrative problems, these cases have not come under review.
The right to strike is not specifically recognized in the law, but strikes are a common form of protest. The most prominent recent strikes have been by inland water transport employees, who claimed that they were not receiving the required minimum wage. Other major strikes have been by jute and textile workers, who sought increased wages and benefits along with guarantees against future privatization and job loss. Employees organized in professional associations or nonregistered unions also strike. In 1996 nurses, private elementary teachers, and members of the nonadministrative cadre of the civil service were among the striking groups. They sought better pay or benefits, a greater share of the public budget, inclusion in the public sector, or administrative reform. University teachers strike for short periods from time to time over the continuing problem of campus violence.
General strikes are standard tools of political opposition groups and are used to pressure the Government to meet political demands. They caused significant economic and social disruption during the year. Wildcat strikes are illegal but occur frequently, with varying government responses. Wildcat strikes in the transportation sector are particularly common.
The Essential Services Ordinance permits the Government to bar strikes for 3 months in any sector that it declares essential. This ban, generally obeyed, has so far been applied to national airline pilots, water supply workers, shipping operations employees, and electricity supply workers. The bans tend to be renewed every 3 months. The Government is empowered to prohibit a strike or lockout at any time before or after the strike or lockout begins and to refer the dispute to the Labor Court. Mechanisms for conciliation, arbitration, and Labor Court dispute resolution were established under the Industrial Relations Ordinance of 1969. Workers have the right to strike in the event of a failure to settle. If a strike lasts 30 days or longer, the Government may prohibit the strike and refer the dispute to the Labor Court for adjudication. This has not happened since 1993.
There are provisions in the Industrial Relations Ordinance for the immunity of registered unions or union officers from civil liability. Enforcement of these provisions is uneven. In the case of illegal work actions, such as transportation blockades, police have arrested union members under either the Special Powers Act, the Antiterrorism Law (now no longer in effect), or regular criminal codes.
There are no restrictions on affiliation with international labor organizations, and unions and federations maintain a variety of such links. Trade unionists are required to obtain government clearance to travel to International Labor Organization (ILO) meetings, but no clearances were reported denied in 1996.
b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively
Collective bargaining is legal only for private sector workers, on condition that the workers are represented by unions legally registered as collective bargaining agents by the Registrar of Trade Unions. Collective bargaining occurs on occasion in large private enterprises such as pharmaceuticals or jute and textiles, but with unemployment in the 30 percent range, workers' concerns over job security often outweigh wage and other issues. Collective bargaining generally does not occur in small private enterprises.
Public sector workers' pay levels and other benefits are recommended by the National Pay and Wages Commission. The Commission's recommendations are binding and may not be disputed except on the issue of implementation.
Under the Industrial Relations Ordinance, there is considerable leeway for discrimination against union members and organizers by employers. For example, the ordinance allows arbitrary transfer of workers suspected of union activities or termination with payment of mandatory severance benefits (2 weeks' salary). Complaints that employers routinely engage in antiunion discrimination and harrassment, including physical attack, are particularly common in the garment industry. In practice, private sector employers, sometimes working in collaboration with local police, tend to discourage any union activity. The Registrar of Trade Unions rules on discrimination complaints. In a number of cases the Labor Court has ordered the reinstatement of workers fired for union activities. However, the Labor Court's overall effectiveness is hampered by a serious case backlog, and there have also been allegations that some of its deliberations have been corrupted by employers.
The law prohibits professional and industry-based unions in the two export processing zones (EPZ's). A small number of workers in the EPZ's have skirted prohibitions on forming unions by setting up associations. The BNP government stated in 1992 that labor law restrictions on freedom of association and formation of unions in the EPZ's would be lifted by 1997. So far neither the BNP nor the Awami League governments have taken action toward this end. In the burgeoning garment industry there have been numerous complaints of workers being harassed and fired in some factories for trying to organize unions. In addition to the prohibition on unions, no collective bargaining takes place in the EPZ's.
c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The Constitution prohibits forced or compulsory labor. The Factories Act and Shops and Establishment Act, both passed in 1965, set up inspection mechanisms to enforce laws against forced labor. These laws are not rigorously enforced, partly because resources for enforcement are few. While there is no large-scale bonded labor, there is forced labor to the extent that workers are often required to work later than stipulated by law, with no special compensation. This is a notable problem in the garment industry.
d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children
The law prohibits labor by children. The Factories Act of 1965 bars children under the age of 14 from working in factories. This law also stipulates that young workers (children and adolescents) are only allowed to work a maximum 5-hour day and only between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.
Enforcement of these rules is inadequate. According to a 1990 labor force survey by the Bureau of Statistics, the country has 5.7 million working children 10 to 14 years of age. The United Nations estimates that about one-third of the population under the age of 18 is engaged in some type of formal or informal employment. Children are commonly seen driving rickshaws, breaking bricks at construction sites, carrying fruit, vegetables, and dry goods for shoppers at markets, and working at tea stalls. They are found as peelers, packers, and beachcombers in the shrimp industry. Also, children work side by side with other family members in small-scale and subsistence agriculture. Children routinely perform domestic work. Cases of children being physically abused and occasionally killed by heads of households where they work are reported in the press. Under the law, every child must attend school through the fifth grade. However, the Government continues to maintain that it does not yet have the resources to implement this law effectively.
In anticipation of possible foreign legislation prohibiting the import of products made by child labor, thousands of underage workers employed in Bangladesh's ready-made garment industry were fired in 1993. Many were probably rehired later by other factories or in subcontracting operations, but the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) pledged to make its member factories child labor-free. Protracted negotiations led to the July 1995 signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the BGMEA, UNICEF, and the ILO to eliminate child labor in the garment sector. The MOU establishes a cooperative program to identify underage workers (through surveys of the garment factories), remove them from their factories, and place them in new schools. It also provides that no children would be fired until education programs were ready to receive them. The children receive a monthly stipend while attending school to help replace their lost income. The ILO takes the lead on monitoring implementation of the MOU, and UNICEF on providing education. As of mid-November, 285 schools had opened, with 7,622 former child workers enrolled. The number of children working in nonexport, or nonfactory garment production is unknown. UNICEF estimates that as many as 200,000 children under the age of 14 are employed in some connection to the garment industry. The ILO calls that estimate exaggerated. Child labor in the industry has not ended, but the process of the elimination of child labor in this sector appears to be making progress.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
There is no national minimum wage. Instead, the Wage Commission, which convenes every several years, sets wages and benefits industry by industry. In most cases, private sector employers ignore this wage structure. Organized jute and textile workers have called strikes in an attempt to win wage parity for their industry's private sector workers. The average monthly wage is sufficient to provide an individual with a minimal standard of living but is not sufficient to provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family.
The law sets a standard 48-hour workweek with 1 day off mandated. A 60-hour workweek, inclusive of a maximum 12 hours of overtime, is allowed. The law is poorly enforced in industries such as hosiery and ready-made garments.
The Factories Act of 1965 nominally sets occupational health and safety standards. The law is comprehensive but appears to be largely ignored by employers. Workers may resort to legal action for enforcement of the law's provisions, but few cases are actually prosecuted. Enforcement by the Labor Ministry's industrial inspectors is weak. Due to high unemployment and inadequate enforcement of the laws, workers demanding correction of dangerous working conditions or refusing to participate in perceived dangerous activities risk losing their jobs.
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