Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Bangladesh democracy & press freedom downward

World Freedom Report 2005

Freedom in the World: Bangladesh
Bangladesh received a downward trend arrow due to a further deterioration in the rule of law and an increase in political violence during the year. The 2005 Report describes democracy and press in Bangladesh is partly free.

Freedom in the World Comparative Rankings: 1973-2005

Overview
Bangladesh continued to be plagued by lawlessness, rampant corruption, and violent political polarization, all of which impede the efficacy of its democratic institutions. Although the opposition Awami League (AL) ended its parliamentary boycott in June, it remained reliant on national strikes to impede the effective functioning of the coalition government led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). For its part, the BNP continues to deploy army personnel to maintain law and order as part of an anticrime drive in which a number of human rights violations have taken place. Official harassment of journalists, human rights advocates, and leaders and perceived supporters of the political opposition persisted throughout the year. In addition, analysts are concerned that the increased strength and influence of Islamist groups pose a long-term threat to Bangladesh's traditionally moderate interpretation of Islam.

With the partition of British India in 1947, what is now Bangladesh became the eastern part of the newly formed state of Pakistan. Bangladesh won independence from Pakistan in December 1971 after a nine-month war during which Indian troops helped defeat West Pakistani forces stationed in Bangladesh. The 1975 assassination of Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman by soldiers precipitated 15 years of 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 deadlock began in 1994, when Sheikh Hasina Wajed's center-left AL began boycotting parliament to protest alleged corruption in Zia's BNP government. The AL and the BNP differ relatively little on domestic policy. Many disputes reflect the personal animosity between Hasina, the daughter of independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and Zia, the widow of a former military ruler allegedly complicit in Mujibur's assassination. The AL boycotted the February 1996 elections, which the BNP won, but then forced Zia's resignation in March and triumphed in elections held in June. The BNP marked its time in opposition by boycotting parliament and organizing periodic nationwide strikes

In October 2001, the AL was voted out of office in elections marred by political violence and intimidation. A new four-party coalition, dominated by the BNP and including two hard-line Muslim parties, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islami Oikyo Jote, was sworn into power with a convincing majority of 214 of the 300 seats in parliament. The AL initially refused to accept the election results and since then has intermittently boycotted parliament. Reneging on a pledge she made during the election campaign, Hasina has also organized countrywide hartals (general strikes) in order to pressure the government to step down.

Faced with a continuing deterioration in law and order, the government deployed nearly 40,000 army personnel in an anticrime drive in October 2002. Although the policy was initially popular among Bangladeshis weary of rising crime rates and a general climate of impunity for criminals, both domestic and international groups criticized police and army excesses committed during operations in which thousands were arrested.

Despite these measures, lawlessness coupled with the growing threat of Islamist extremism continues to plague most of the country; a bomb planted at a shrine in Sylhet injured the British High Commissioner in May 2004, while further explosions targeted cinemas in the same town in August. Analysts have voiced concern that the reluctance of the government to crack down on radical Islamist groups poses a long-term threat to Bangladesh's stability as well as its tradition of tolerance.

A series of crippling AL-sponsored demonstrations and hartals held in February and March failed to dislodge the government from power, as have the party's ultimatums that the government step down. The AL returned to parliament in June, ending a 20-month periodic boycott. Meanwhile, frustration with the unwillingness of the two major parties to address lawlessness and corruption rose. In March, a national convention of politicians, journalists, lawyers, and civic leaders endorsed a 17-point charter calling for an end to "criminalized politics," violence, and corruption, and in May former president Badruddoza Chowdhury announced the formation of a new political party aimed at tackling corruption.

In August, a series of grenades exploded at an AL rally in Dhaka, leaving at least 18 people dead and several hundred injured, including several top party leaders. In the atmosphere of heightened political antagonism following the blasts, the government announced that an independent commission would investigate the attacks, as well as increasing security measures, conducting mass arrests, and enlisting the armed forces to help fight terrorism. The AL's predictable response was to call for a fresh series of strikes and street agitation, but the party has also attempted to forge alliances with smaller left-leaning parties in order to strengthen its position versus the BNP.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties
Bangladeshis can change their government through elections. A referendum held in 1991 transformed the powerful presidency into a largely ceremonial head-of-state position in a parliamentary system. Elections to the 300-member unicameral parliament are held in single-member districts under a simple-plurality rule. The 1996 vote was the first under a constitutional amendment requiring a caretaker government to conduct elections. The most recent national elections, held in October 2001, were described as generally free and fair despite concerns over polling irregularities, intimidation, and violence. More than 140 people were killed throughout the campaign period in what was Bangladesh's most violent election to date. In July, European Union (EU) representatives as well as local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) raised concerns about the validity of a by-election held in the Dhaka-10 constituency that was marred by fraud and intimidation.

Both major parties have undermined the legislative process through lengthy parliamentary boycotts while in opposition. In recent years, political violence during demonstrations and general strikes has killed hundreds of people in major cities and injured thousands, and police often use excessive force against opposition protesters. Party leaders are also targeted, and several died during the year after being attacked. Odhikar, a local NGO, claimed that during the first half of 2004, there were 287 people killed in political violence. Student wings of political parties continue to be embroiled in violent campus conflicts.

Analysts blame endemic corruption, a weak rule of law, limited bureaucratic transparency, and political polarization for undermining government accountability. In October, Transparency International again listed Bangladesh at the bottom of a 146-country list on its 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index and noted that corruption was perceived to be "acute." An Anti-Corruption Commission, which is authorized to conduct investigations and try corruption cases in special courts, was launched in November. However, critics remain concerned that the new body will not be truly independent either politically or financially.

Media continued to face a number of pressures in 2004, the most striking of which was the high level of violence directed against members of the press and the impunity enjoyed by those who attack them. Journalists are regularly harassed and violently attacked by organized-crime groups, political parties and their supporters, government authorities, the police, and extremist groups. In August, Prothom Alo, Bangladesh's largest Bengali-language daily, was targeted after it published a series of investigative reports on militant Islamist activities in the southeastern region of Chittagong. Five journalists were killed during the year, and numerous others received death threats. As a result, many journalists practice self-censorship when reporting on topics such as corruption, criminal activity, electoral violence, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, or human rights abuses. Although the print media are diverse, the state owns most broadcast media, whose coverage favors the ruling party. Political considerations influence the distribution of government advertising revenue and subsidized newsprint, upon which most publications are dependent. Access to the Internet is generally unrestricted.

Islam is the official religion. Hindus, Christians, and other minorities have the right to worship freely but face societal discrimination and remain underrepresented in government employment. Violence against the Hindu minority flared up after the 2001 elections, when BNP supporters attacked Hindus because of their perceived support for the rival AL party. Atrocities, including murder, rape, destruction of property, and kidnapping, forced hundreds of Hindus from their homes, some across the border into India. Hindus continue to face harassment and violence at the hands of orthodox Islamist political parties and their supporters. During the year, the 100,000-strong Ahmadiya Muslim sect also faced increased attacks from Islamist groups; in addition, in January 2004, the government announced a ban on the publication and distribution of the sect's publications.

While authorities largely respect academic freedom, research on sensitive political and religious topics is forbidden, according to the U.S. State Department's 2003 human rights report. Political polarization at many public universities, which occasionally erupts into protests and clashes between students and security forces, inhibits the ability of some students to receive an education. In March, leading author and lecturer Humayun Azad was stabbed by suspected Islamist extremists on the Dhaka University campus.

The constitution provides for freedom of assembly, but the government frequently limits this right in practice. Demonstrators are occasionally killed or injured during clashes with police. Numerous NGOs operate in Bangladesh and fulfill a variety of basic needs in fields such as education, health care, and microcredit programs. However, those that are perceived to have links to the opposition or that criticize the government, particularly on human rights issues, are subject to intense official scrutiny. Proshika, a poverty-reduction NGO, was subjected to politically motivated harassment during the year; in May, the national anticorruption agency accused the group of financial irregularities, and in June, the government brought sedition charges against the president and six other members of the organization.

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. The law prohibits many civil servants from joining unions; these workers can form associations but are prohibited from bargaining collectively. Child labor is widespread.
The Supreme Court displays a "significant degree of independence" and often rules against the executive, according to the U.S. State Department.

However, lower-level courts remain subject to executive influence and are rife with corruption. The government continues to delay implementing the separation of the judiciary from the executive as ordered by a 1999 Supreme Court directive. The judicial system is severely backlogged, and pretrial detention is lengthy. Many defendants lack counsel, and poor people have limited recourse through the courts. Prison conditions are extremely poor, and severe overcrowding is common. According to the New Delhi - based Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), hundreds of juveniles are illegally detained in prisons in contravention of the 1974 Children's Act. Prisoners are routinely subjected to physical abuse and demands for bribes from corrupt law enforcement officials. In a 2003 report, Amnesty International expressed concern that police frequently detain people without an arrest warrant and that detainees are routinely subjected to torture and other forms of abuse. The majority of police abuses go unpunished, which contributes to a climate of impunity.

As part of Operation Clean Heart, a government-initiated anticrime drive of questionable constitutional legality that began in October 2002, the army detained nearly 11,000 people, over 40 of whom died while in police custody. Legislation passed in February 2003 granted members of the security forces immunity from prosecution in civilian courts for the abuses committed during the operation. Further efforts were made to tackle criminal activity with the formation and deployment of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), composed of approximately 4,500 members of the armed forces and police, in March 2004. However, an ACHR briefing issued in November alleged that 43 people had been extrajudicially executed by the RAB from June to October.

Many of these forms of abuse are facilitated by the existence of legislation such as the 1974 Special Powers Act, which permits arbitrary detention without charge, and Section 54 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which allows individuals to be detained without a warrant. Authorities regularly detain thousands of political opponents and ordinary citizens, and use serial detentions to prevent the release of political activists. Amnesty International in 2002 highlighted a continuing pattern of politically motivated detentions, noting that senior opposition politicians, academics, journalists, and human rights activists critical of government policies were particularly at risk of prolonged detention and ill treatment in custody. According to a 2002 UN Development Program report, almost 90 percent of "preventative detention" cases that reach the courts are judged to be unlawful. In April 2004, the high court directed the government to amend certain sections of the code within six months, but this directive had not been acted upon by November 30.

Tribal minorities have little control over land issues affecting them, and Bengali-language settlers continue to illegally encroach on tribal lands in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) with the reported connivance of government officials and the army. A 1997 accord ended a 24-year insurgency in the CHT that had sought autonomy for indigenous tribes and had resulted in the deaths of 8,500 soldiers, rebels, and civilians. However, in December 2003, demonstrators blocked roads and held general strikes in order to protest the continued presence of army camps and the government's perceived failure to implement the terms of the 1997 accord. Tribal inhabitants of the area remain subject to attacks from Bengali settlers, including killings, rapes, and the destruction of houses and other property, according to a March report issued by Amnesty International, as well as to human rights violations at the hands of security forces; and impunity for past abuses continues.

Roughly 260,000 Rohingyas fleeing forced labor, discrimination, and other abuses in Burma entered Bangladesh in the early 1990s; some 22,000 Rohingya refugees and 100,000 other Rohingyas not formally documented as refugees remain in the country. Bangladesh also hosts some 300,000 Urdu-speaking Biharis who were rendered stateless at independence in 1971, many of whom seek repatriation to Pakistan. In May 2003, a landmark high court ruling gave citizenship and voting rights to 10 Bihari refugees.

Rape, dowry-related assaults, acid throwing, and other violence against women occur frequently. 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. The Acid Survivors Foundation, a local NGO, recorded 410 acid attacks in 2003, with the majority being carried out against women. While prosecution for acid-related crimes remains inadequate, under the stringent Acid Crime Prevention Act passed in 2002, one attacker was sentenced to death early in 2003. In rural areas religious leaders occasionally issue fatwas (religious edicts) that impose floggings and other punishments on women accused of violating strict moral codes. Women also face some discrimination in health care, education, and employment, and are underrepresented in politics and government. However, in May, parliament amended the constitution to provide for 45 reserved seats in parliament for women. #

Published by: Freedom House, 1319 18th Street, NW, Washington, DC,20036, USA