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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Bangladesh dropped from religious freedom watch list

The Commission held public hearings that examined the threat to religious freedom and security posed by violent religious extremists in Sudan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, and reviewed possible U.S. government responses. Two hearings focused on the impact of religious extremism on religious freedom and security in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

In December 2008, the Commission convened a hearing entitled Bangladesh: Religious Freedom, Extremism, Security, and the Upcoming National Elections. In light of the anti-minority, particularly anti-Hindu, violence associated with Bangladesh‘s 2001 national elections, Commissioners examined the national elections scheduled to be held later that month, the prospects for Bangladesh re-joining the ranks of the Muslim world‘s functioning, moderate democracies, and the Commission‘s long-standing concerns regarding the threat to the human rights posed by religious intolerance and extremism. Seven witnesses participated, including U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh James F. Moriarty. Representative Crowley (D-NY) participated in the event.

The Commission placed Bangladesh on its Watch List from 2005 to 2008 due to a number of concerns, including past election related violence targeting religious minorities and a range of serious violations of human rights under the previous military-backed ―caretaker government. On December 29, 2008, national elections took place, ending a two-year suspension of democratic governance. International and local observers characterized the elections as free, fair, and peaceful.

The elections brought the Awami League to power, headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The Awami League is considered more favorably disposed toward minority rights protection, based in part on the fact that the 1997 Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accords and the Vested Property Return Act, both measures meant to safeguard minority rights, were established under a previous Awami League administration. The 2008 elections allowed for minorities to exercise their voting rights and proceeded without the anti-minority violence that followed the last national elections in 2001. At that time, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led government failed to investigate or prosecute acts of severe violence, including killings, rape, land seizures, arson, and extortion against religious minorities, particularly Hindus, who were perceived to be allied with the then-opposition Awami League.

The absence of measures to promote minority voting rights and the failure of the government to investigate the severe anti-minority violence of 2001 were among the reasons for placing Bangladesh on the Watch List from 2005 to 2008. In light of the positive developments witnessed during the 2008 elections, the Commission is removing Bangladesh from its Watch List in 2009.

Despite these improvements, Bangladesh continues to have outstanding religious freedom issues and face threats from religious extremism. The Commission therefore urges the new Awami League administration to strengthen protections for all Bangladeshis to enjoy the right to freedom of religion or belief, and undertake efforts to improve conditions for minority religious communities. The Commission hopes that the government of Bangladesh will investigate and prosecute to the fullest extent of the law perpetrators of violent acts against members of minority religious communities, women, and non-governmental organizations. Reforms of the judiciary and the police are also necessary to ensure that law enforcement and security services are equally protective of the rights of all, including Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Ahmadis, and other minorities. Additional efforts are needed to counter societal and governmental discrimination in access to public services, the legal system, and government, military, and police employment.

Following independence from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh was established as a secular state in which national identity was based on Bengali language and culture. Although the 1972 constitution guaranteed the freedom of religion, subsequent military regimes added amendments affirming that ―absolute trust and faith in Allah is ―the basis for all [government] actions. Islam was made Bangladesh‘s state religion in 1988 under H.M. Ershad‘s military dictatorship.

Aided by the expansion of Islamic schools (madrassas) and charities, many of which receive foreign funding with varying degrees of government oversight, Islamist activists have gained significantly in political, economic, and social influence in recent years. Members of Jamaat-e-Islami allegedly used their influence in the previous BNP-led government to deny funding to or otherwise disadvantage groups viewed as opposing Jamaat‘s Islamist political and social agenda. Although some calling for a more Islamist Bangladesh engaged in peaceful political and social activities, others adopted an approach sanctioning violence towards perceived opponents of Islam.

On January 11, 2007, threats by the then opposition party, the Awami League, to boycott the national elections, alongside an ongoing controversy over voter registration and the impartiality of the electoral process, prompted the caretaker government to declare emergency rule and indefinitely suspend the upcoming national elections. The military was given sanction to enforce emergency rule, which included the suspension of the freedoms of speech and assembly, and due process, among other rights. The caretaker government was widely criticized by international and local human rights agencies for serious human rights abuses, including suspected extrajudicial killings by the security forces, arbitrary detentions, torture, curbs on press freedom, and violations of the right of due process.

Even during periods of democratic governance, Bangladesh‘s high levels of political violence and instability have provided opportunities for religious and other extremist groups to engage in criminal activities with relative impunity. Authors, journalists, academics, and women‘s rights and civil society activists debating sensitive social or political issues, or expressing opinions deemed by radical Islamists to be offensive to Islam, have been subject to violent, sometimes fatal, attacks. Some Muslim clerics, especially in rural areas, have also sanctioned vigilante punishments against women for alleged moral transgressions. Rape is reportedly a common form of anti-minority violence, and sexual assaults on Hindu women were reported in 2008. The government commonly fails to punish perpetrators, since the law enforcement and the judicial systems, especially at the local level, are vulnerable to corruption, intimidation, and political interference.

Bangladesh was ranked tenth from the bottom on Transparency International‘s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index. From 2001-2005, Bangladesh was ranked at the bottom of the list. Islamist extremists coordinated a wave of hundreds of almost simultaneous bomb attacks, carried out in all but one of Bangladesh‘s 64 districts on August 17, 2005. These extremists were also implicated in a series of bomb attacks on Bangladesh‘s judiciary in October-November 2005 which accompanied a demand to substitute sharia law for Bangladesh‘s secular jurisprudence system. In March 2007, six members of the armed Islamist group Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), including JMB leader Sheikh Abdur Rahman and Siddiqul Islam, alias ―Bangla Bhai, were executed for their involvement in the 2005 bombings. During the 2007-2008 emergency, Islamist groups rose in political prominence and public visibility. In September 2007, emergency restrictions on assembly were apparently waived to allow Jamaat and other Islamist supporters to burn effigies and stage public protests against the publication of a newspaper cartoon they believed mocked an element of Bangladeshi Islamic culture. Cartoonist Arifur Rahman was jailed without charge for six months. In March 2008, restrictions on assembly were again ostensibly lifted to allow protests by Islamic groups against a policy proposed by a consortium of women‘s organizations to strengthen constitutional provision for the equal rights of women. In October 2008, federal agencies removed five sculptures of traditional Bengali musicians opposite Zia International Airport in Dhaka at the behest of Islamic leaders, who allegedly deemed the sculptures ―un-Islamic.

In February 2009, during a mutiny of the border security force, the Bangladesh Rifles, 74 Army officers were killed. Some news reports alleged the involvement of Bangladesh- and Pakistan-based Islamists, although details surrounding the revolt remain unclear. In March 2009, a cache of weapons was found at a madrassa in the south of Bangladesh. According to news reports, some government officials fear a re-arming of Islamist extremist groups in the lull following the government crackdown and executions.

Although the constitution provides protections for women and minorities, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Ahmadis, and other minorities must regularly grapple with societal discrimination, as well as face prejudice that hinders their ability to access public services, the legal system, and government, military, and police employment. Religious minorities are also underrepresented in elected political offices, including the national parliament. The Vested Property Act (VPA) continues to be used as justification by some Muslims to seize Hindu-owned land. The VPA‘s implicit presumption that Hindus do not belong in Bangladesh contributes to the perception that Hindu owned property can be seized with impunity.

The most serious and sustained conflict along ethnic and religious lines has been in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), an area with a high concentration of non-Bengali, non-Muslim indigenous peoples (often referred to as Adivasis, Paharis, or Jumma). Resentment among members of indigenous groups remains strong over settler encroachment, human rights abuses by the Bangladeshi military, and the slow, inconsistent implementation of the 1997 Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accords. Muslim Bengalis, once a tiny minority in the CHT, now reportedly equal or outnumber indigenous groups. In 2007, Bangladesh human rights organizations reported a surge in Bengali settlements on tribal land in the CHT. In 2008 in the Sajek area of the CHT, tribal residents endured military-backed encroachment by Muslim Bengali settlers, via home burnings and land seizures.

On December 29, 2008, a few hours before the general elections, a Buddhist temple and three homes in a minority-dominated part of Fatikchari, CHT were subject to an arson attack, reportedly to intimidate minorities and scare them into nonparticipation on voting day.

Bangladesh‘s small Ahmadi community of about 100,000 is the target of a campaign to designate the Ahmadis as ―non-Muslim heretics. In January 2004, the BNP government bent to extremist Islamist pressure and banned the publication and distribution of Ahmadi religious literature. Police seized Ahmadi publications on a few occasions before the ban was stayed by the courts in December 2004. The ban is not currently enforced. An Ahmadi library, closed by local officials in Dinajur district in March 2008, remained closed through the reporting period. In some instances, local anti-Ahmadi agitation has been accompanied by mob violence in which Ahmadi homes have been destroyed and Ahmadis are held against their will and pressured to recant. However, violence against Ahmadis has diminished due to improved and more vigorous police protection.

The Commission has recommended that the U.S. government encourage the new government of Bangladesh to take early action on the following issues and ensure consistent implementation: 1) investigate and prosecute perpetrators of the anti minority violence that occurred in the wake of the 2001 national elections; 2) repeal the Vested Property Act and commit to restoring or compensating for properties seized, including to the heirs of original owners; 3) rescind the 2004 order banning Ahmadi publications, and ensure adequate police response to attacks against Ahmadis; 4) enforce all provisions of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accords and declare that members of Bangladesh's tribal communities are deserving of the full rights of Bangladeshi citizenship; 5) create and support the promised National Human Rights Commission, which should be independent, adequately funded, inclusive of women and minorities, and defined by a broad mandate that includes freedom of religion or belief; 6) include in all public and madrassa school curricula, textbooks, and teacher trainings information on tolerance and respect for freedom of religion or belief; and 7) ensure that members of minority communities have equal access to government services and public employment, including in the judiciary and high-level government positions. #

Excerpts from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom’s 2009 Annual Report, May 1, 2009

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