The ruling Awami League (AL) has consolidated political power through sustained harassment of the opposition and those perceived to be allied with it, as well as of critical media and voices in civil society. Corruption is endemic, and anticorruption efforts have been weakened by politicized enforcement. Due process guarantees are poorly upheld and security forces carry out a range of human rights abuses with near impunity. Violence and discrimination against religious minorities and refugees, particularly Rohingya who have fled Myanmar, are significant problems.
- In late March, four participants of protests in Chittagong against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh were killed after AL supporters attacked the demonstrators and police subsequently fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowds. Subsequent protests across the country against another attack by AL supporters on worshippers in Dhaka were again confronted and attacked by AL supporters. Fourteen more people were killed after police failed to protect peaceful protesters and used unnecessary and excessive force to disperse the crowds.
- In December, the US government placed sanctions on several leaders from Bangladesh’s elite security force the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), which is accused of nearly 600 extrajudicial killings since 2018 and hundreds of enforced disappearances. Local human rights organization Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) documented at least 80 extrajudicial killings perpetrated by security forces during the year.
- The government escalated its repression of Rohingya refugees, allegedly relocating without consent nearly 21,000 refugees to Bhasan Char, a silt island off the Bangladesh coastline, as of July. The island lacks adequate facilities for the refugees and is prone to flooding. In September, prominent Rohingya civil society activist Mohibullah was murdered in a mainland camp, reportedly by Islamist militants.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
A largely ceremonial president, who serves for five years, is elected by the legislature. President Abdul Hamid was elected to his second term in 2018.
The leader of the party that wins the most seats in the unicameral National Parliament assumes the position of prime minister and wields effective power. Sheikh Hasina was sworn in for her third term as prime minister in early 2019 following the AL’s overwhelming victory in the 2018 elections, which were marked by violence, intimidation of opposition candidates and supporters, allegations of fraud benefiting the ruling party, and the exclusion of nonpartisan election monitors.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
The National Parliament is composed of 350 members, 300 of whom are directly elected. Political parties select a total of 50 women members based on the parties’ share of elected seats.
The AL overwhelmingly won the December 2018 parliamentary election, taking 288 of the 300 directly elected seats with its alliance partners. Election day and the campaign that preceded it were marked by political violence in which at least 17 people were killed, as well as legal and extralegal harassment of government opponents. The main opposition party the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) claimed that thousands of its supporters and nearly a dozen of its candidates were arrested ahead of the elections, and that its candidates were subject to intimidation and violence.
In the election’s wake, the BNP alleged that the AL had benefitted from widespread electoral fraud carried out by AL supporters with the complicity of law enforcement agents and the army. Several domestic and international observation missions were unable to observe the elections due to delayed or denied accreditation.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?
Opposition parties and outside observers have long criticized the independence of the Election Commission (EC) and its ability to investigate complaints. Some foreign governments and international organizations have withdrawn financial assistance to the commission over such concerns. The EC’s stewardship of the 2018 national election lent further credence to complaints that it favors the ruling party. In the run-up to the 2018 polls, the commission disproportionately disqualified opposition candidates for various violations. Moreover, the EC failed to order additional security measures following outbreaks of political violence that preceded the vote, or to meaningfully address many complaints filed by opposition figures about election-related violence and other electoral irregularities. After the election, the EC affirmed the results without investigating widespread allegations of fraud. In 2019, 2020, and 2021, subnational elections were criticized for irregularities.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
Bangladesh has a multiparty system in which power has historically alternated between political coalitions led by the AL and the BNP; third parties have traditionally had difficulty achieving traction. Both parties are nondemocratic in terms of internal structure and are led by families that have competed to lead Bangladesh since independence, along with a small coterie of advisers. A crackdown on the BNP ahead of the 2018 elections significantly disrupted its operations. However, the government eased restrictions on opposition protests and rallies after the polls. In 2021, the BNP routinely held public activities, but were often met with violence from AL supporters or the police.
In 2021, the Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), which was banned in 2013 for violating constitutional provisions outlawing religiously based parties, continued to face pressure on its activities. JI leaders have been prosecuted by the International Crimes Tribunal, a domestic government body that investigates war crimes committed during Bangladesh’s independence war. In order to participate in elections, JI candidates have run as a part of the BNP.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
The BNP has been weakened by regular harassment and arrests of key members that have significantly harmed its ability to challenge the AL in elections. The 2018 election campaign was marred by a crackdown on dissent that saw thousands of people and several political candidates arrested. There were also several acts of violence committed against opposition figures.
In the run-up to the 2018 parliamentary polls, former prime minister and BNP leader Khaleda Zia was convicted on corruption charges in two separate court cases, sentenced to over a decade in prison, and later banned from electoral competition. In March 2020, the government temporarily released Zia from jail to receive medical treatment at home, though she was not permitted to leave the country; her release has since continued to be extended for six-month intervals. Zia’s forced absence from politics has severely hampered the competitiveness of the BNP. In 2021, the BNP decided to boycott subnational elections.
A JI spokesperson said more than 1,850 party members were arrested ahead of the 2018 elections, and some party members claimed they had been subject to torture while in custody.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?
The rival AL and BNP parties dominate politics and limit political choices for those who question internal party structures or hierarchy, or who would create alternative parties or political groupings.
Animosity between Hasina and Zia, as well as between lower-level cadres, has contributed to continued political violence. In 2020, human rights group Odhikar reported that 73 people had been killed and 2,883 people had been injured because of political violence. Violent political protests and election-related violence persisted in 2021.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
In the National Parliament, 50 seats are allotted to women, who are elected by political parties based on their overall share of elected seats. Women lead both main political parties. Nevertheless, societal discrimination against women, as well as against as well against LGBT+ people, limits their participation in politics in practice. Religious, ethnic, and other marginalized groups remain underrepresented in politics and state agencies. In 2019, several transgender women competed for women’s reserved seats in parliament. None was selected.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
Policy is set by the ruling AL, and weaknesses in the country’s institutions have reduced checks on its processes and decision-making. Low representation of opposition lawmakers in the National Parliament significantly reduces its ability to provide thorough scrutiny of or debate on government policies, budgets, and proposed legislation.
Problems with the 2018 election including violence, intimidation of opposition candidates and supporters, and allegations of fraud benefiting the ruling party undermined the legitimacy of the AL government that was seated in January 2019.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?
Under the AL government, anticorruption efforts have been weakened by politicized enforcement and subversion of the judicial process. In particular, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) has become ineffective and subject to overt political interference. The government continues to bring or pursue politicized corruption cases against BNP party leaders. In 2021, AL politicians continued to be accused of corruption, particularly involving funds intended for COVID-19 relief efforts, despite the party’s increased actions and rhetoric against such wrongdoing. A February Al Jazeera investigative report alleged corruption in defense contracts, among other claims.
Media outlets and civil society face restrictions and are less able to expose government corruption.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?
Endemic corruption and criminality, weak rule of law, limited bureaucratic transparency, and political polarization have long undermined government accountability. The 2009 Right to Information Act mandates public access to all information held by public bodies and overrides secrecy legislation. Although it has been unevenly implemented, journalists and civil society activists have had some success in using it to obtain information from local governing authorities.
|Are there free and independent media?
Journalists and media outlets face many forms of pressure, including frequent lawsuits, harassment, and serious or deadly physical attacks. Throughout 2021, journalists were arrested for critical reporting on the government, repression which has escalated under the AL government. A climate of impunity for attacks on media workers remains the norm, and there has been little progress made to ensure justice for a series of blogger murders since 2015. Dozens of bloggers remain in hiding or exile.
The 2018 Digital Security Act (DSA) allows the government to conduct searches or arrest individuals without a warrant, criminalizes various forms of speech, and was vehemently opposed by journalists. Forms of artistic expression contained in books, films, and other materials are occasionally banned or censored.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
Islam is designated as the official religion, though the constitution designates secularism as among the “high ideals” the charter is grounded in. Although religious minorities have the right to worship freely, they occasionally face legal repercussions for proselytizing. Members of minority groups—including Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and Shiite and Ahmadiyya Muslims—continue to face harassment and violence, including mob violence against their houses of worship. Increasingly in recent years, violence against religious minorities appears to be deliberately provoked on social media. In October 2021, groups of Muslims in at least 12 districts across Bangladesh attacked Hindu homes and temples, killing at least two Hindus, during the Hindu religious festival Durga Puja. The violence was primarily provoked by a Facebook post, later proven to be falsified, that depicted a Quran placed on a Hindu deity.
Those with secular or nonconformist views can face societal opprobrium and attacks from hardline Islamist groups.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?
In recent years, Bangladesh’s academic institutions have faced frequent threats from a variety of actors, resulting in reduced autonomy and rising self-censorship. Faculty hiring and promotion are often linked to support for the AL, and campus debate is often stifled by the AL’s student wing. Throughout 2020, several academics were fired or censured for criticizing the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and other issues. In September 2019, members of the AL student wing attacked a nonviolent protest and beat a student to death after he posted criticism of the AL on Facebook. In 2021, the ruling party’s student wing continued to suppress dissent.
Islamist groups have growing influence on government policy and standards, compelling changes to educational content they deemed “atheistic” in widely used Bengali-language textbooks. Separately, Islamic extremists have attacked secular professors.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?
Open discussion of sensitive religious and political issues is restrained by fears of harassment and violence from the government and religious fundamentalists. Religious fundamentalists have retaliated in recent years against those who publicly discuss LGBT+ rights, atheism, or criticism of Islamist movements.
In the lead-up to national and local elections between 2018 and 2020, repression of dissent created a climate of fear. A 2019 poll from the International Republican Institute indicated that a considerable proportion of the public is afraid to publicly express their political opinions and widely reported self-censorship. The DSA has enabled the government to increase censorship of digital content and surveillance of telecommunications and social media. Between October 2018 and mid-2021, Amnesty International found that more than 1,300 cases have been filed and nearly 1,000 individuals had been arrested under the DSA for mostly politicized and minor offenses. The government has also procured phone surveillance and hacking equipment.
|Is there freedom of assembly?
The constitution provides for the rights of assembly and association, but this is upheld inconsistently. Protesters are frequently injured and occasionally killed during clashes in which police use excessive force.
In late March 2021, four participants of protests in Chittagong against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh were killed after AL supporters attacked the demonstrators and police subsequently fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowds. Members of the AL and members of the AL’s student wing, the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), attacked worshippers exiting a mosque in Dhaka who had planned another protest against Modi’s visit. Police fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition to disperse the protesters, many of whom were injured with gunshot wounds. On March 27 and 28, subsequent protests across the country against the AL and BCL attack in Dhaka were again confronted and attacked by AL supporters; police failed to protect those attempting to protest and used unnecessary and excessive force against them. In Chattogram and Brahmanbaria districts, at least 14 people were killed, and hundreds were injured.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
Many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate in Bangladesh and function without onerous restrictions, but the use of foreign funds must be cleared by the NGO Affairs Bureau, which can also approve or reject individual projects. The 2016 Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act made it more difficult for NGOs to obtain foreign funds and gave officials broad authority to deregister NGOs. Democracy, governance, and human rights NGOs are regularly denied permission for proposed projects and are subject to harassment and surveillance. Pressure and intimidation from Islamist groups also limit NGO activities on some issues such as LGBT+ rights and protection for minority religious groups.
In 2021, authorities continued to invoke digital security laws to arrest several rights activists for online speech, citing offenses including hurting religious sentiment and undermining law and order. In February, Bangladeshi writer Mushtaq Ahmed died in prison, having been arrested in May 2020 for criticizing the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ahmed, who became ill in January 2021, had been in pretrial detention since his arrest and was charged with “tarnishing the image of the nation,” among other repressive offenses under the DSA.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?
Legal reforms in 2015 eased restrictions on the formation of unions. However, union leaders who attempt to organize or unionize workers continue to face dismissal or physical intimidation. Organizations that advocate for labor rights have faced increased harassment. Worker grievances fuel unrest at factories, particularly in the garment industry, where protests against low wages and unsafe working conditions are common. Protesting workers often face violence, arrest, and dismissal.
|Is there an independent judiciary?
Politicization of and pressure against the judiciary persists. In 2017, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court retired; he left the country and said, in an autobiography published in 2018, that he had been forced to retire after the Bangladeshi military intelligence threatened him because of rulings he had made against the government. In 2019, Bangladesh’s Anti-Corruption Commission charged the former chief justice with corruption in absentia. Allegations of political pressure on judges are common, as are allegations that unqualified AL loyalists were being appointed to court positions.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?
Individuals’ ability to access the justice system is compromised by endemic corruption within the courts and severe case backlogs. Pretrial detention is often lengthy, and many defendants lack counsel. Suspects are routinely subject to arbitrary arrest and detention, demands for bribes, and physical abuse by police. Criminal cases against ruling party activists are regularly withdrawn on the grounds of “political consideration,” undermining the judicial process and entrenching a culture of impunity.
The 1974 Special Powers Act permits arbitrary detention without charge, and the criminal procedure code allows detention without a warrant. A 2009 counterterrorism law includes a broad definition of terrorism and generally does not meet international standards. Concerns have repeatedly been raised that the International Crimes Tribunal’s procedures and verdicts do not meet international standards on issues such as victim and witness protection, the presumption of innocence, defendant access to counsel, and the right to bail. Since 2013, the tribunal has sentenced at least 45 people to death or long prison sentences.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
The number of terrorist attacks by Islamist militant groups has remained low following the government’s increased counterterrorism efforts since the 2016 Holey Artisan Bakery terrorist attack. However, the Islamic State (IS) militant group claimed credit for several nonlethal bomb attacks on police officers in Dhaka in 2019 and 2020. Though counterterrorist personnel arrested several militants in 2021, there is concern that the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan could inspire militant activity in Bangladesh.
A range of human rights abuses by law enforcement agencies—including enforced disappearances, custodial deaths, arbitrary arrests, and torture—have continued unabated. In 2018, the government initiated a “war on drugs”; since that time, thousands of people have been arrested and over 100 people have been killed. A statement from the International Federation for Human Rights released in August 2020 said at least 572 people had been subject to enforced disappearance between 2009 and July 2020.
Prison conditions are extremely poor; severe overcrowding is common, and juveniles are often incarcerated with adults. The human rights and legal aid organization Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) documented the deaths of 81 people while in custody in 2021.
In 2021, ASK also documented at least 80 extrajudicial killings perpetrated by security forces. In December 2021, the US government placed sanctions on several leaders from Bangladesh’s elite security force the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), which is accused of nearly 600 extrajudicial killings since 2018 and hundreds of enforced disappearances.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
Members of ethnic and religious minority groups face some legal discrimination, as well as harassment and violations of their rights in practice. Indigenous people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), religious minorities, and other ethnic groups remain subject to physical attacks, property destruction, land grabs by Bengali settlers, and occasional abuses by security forces.
Over a million ethnic Rohingyas have fled Myanmar and entered Bangladesh since the 1990s. Since violence directed against Rohingyas escalated in Myanmar’s Rakhine State in 2017, over 700,000 refugees have fled into Bangladesh, creating a humanitarian crisis. The vast majority do not have official refugee status and have limited access to health care, employment, and education. Authorities reached a repatriation agreement with Myanmar in October 2018, but the UN refugee agency said conditions in Myanmar were not fit for the refugees’ return and that safeguards for them were “absent.” Subsequent efforts to repatriate Rohingya have failed, and the Bangladeshi government has become increasingly hostile toward the refugees. In 2019, authorities cut off cell phone service in refugee camps (restored in August 2020 after international pressure) and erected barbed wire fencing around them.
In 2020, Bangladesh began transferring refugees to Bhasan Char, a silt island off the Bangladesh coastline, which had a refugee population of nearly 20,000 as of June 2021; the island lacks adequate facilities for the refugees and is prone to flooding. Reports alleged that authorities had forced refugees to consent to their relocation. In refugee camps on the mainland, gang violence and other lawlessness has escalated. In September 2021, the prominent Rohingya civil society activist Mohibullah was murdered in a mainland camp, reportedly by Islamist militants. In recent years, dozens of Rohingya have drowned in the Bay of Bengal trying to leave Bangladesh.
A criminal ban on same-sex relations is rarely enforced, but societal discrimination remains the norm, and dozens of attacks on LGBT+ individuals are reported every year. A number of LGBT+ individuals remain in exile following the 2016 murder of Xulhaz Mannan, a prominent LGBT+ activist, by Islamist militants. Some legal recognition is available for transgender people, though in practice they face severe discrimination.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?
The ability to move within the country is relatively unrestricted, as is foreign travel, though there are some rules on travel into and around the CHT districts by foreigners as well as into Rohingya refugee camps. During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the government implemented some movement restrictions that were limited in scope and duration.
There are few legal restrictions regarding choice of education or employment.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?
Property rights are unevenly enforced, and the ability to engage freely in private economic activity is somewhat constrained. Corruption and bribery, inadequate infrastructure, and official bureaucratic and regulatory hurdles hinder business activities throughout the country. State involvement and interference in the economy is considerable. The 2011 Vested Properties Return Act allows Hindus to reclaim land that the government or other individuals seized, but it has been unevenly implemented. Tribal minorities have little control over land decisions affecting them, and Bengali-speaking settlers continue to illegally encroach on tribal lands in the CHT.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?
Under personal status laws affecting all religions, women have fewer marriage, divorce, and inheritance rights than men, and face discrimination in social services and employment. Rape, acid throwing, and other forms of gender-based violence occur regularly despite laws offering some level of protection. 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 cases from reaching the courts. In October 2020, the government introduced the death penalty for rape in response to large protests after a series of high-profile incidents of rape and sexual assault.
Giving or receiving dowry is a criminal offense, but coercive requests still occur. Bangladesh ranks among the top 10 countries with the highest rates of child marriage. Despite a stated government commitment in 2014 to abolish the practice by 2041, in 2017 parliament approved a law that would permit girls under the age of 18 to marry under certain circumstances, reversing a previous legal ban on the practice.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
Socioeconomic inequality is widespread. Working conditions in the garment industry remain extremely unsafe in most factories despite the renewal of a legally binding accord between unions and clothing brands to improve safety practices. Comprehensive reforms of the industry are hampered by the fact that a growing number of factory owners are also legislators or influential businesspeople.
Bangladesh remains both a major supplier of and transit point for trafficking victims, with tens of thousands of people trafficked each year. Women and children are trafficked both overseas and within the country for the purposes of domestic servitude and sexual exploitation, while men are trafficked primarily for labor abroad. A comprehensive 2013 antitrafficking law provides protection to victims and increased penalties for traffickers, but enforcement remains inadequate.
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Global Freedom Score40 100 partly free
Internet Freedom Score41 100 partly free