Countries at the Crossroads
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Democracy seemed likely to take root when Bangladesh emerged from a long period of military authoritarianism in December 1990, especially after a new constitution in 1991 replaced autocratic presidential rule with a parliamentary system. Since then, however, Bangladesh has been struggling to foster a democratic political culture amid frequent disputes over the rules of the game. Despite widespread initial optimism, the constitutional provision for organizing national elections under a nonpartisan caretaker government proved to be a major stumbling block in the country’s efforts to consolidate democracy.
Increased tension between the two main political alliances, rampant corruption, the emergence of a neopatrimonial state, and the deterioration of law and order have contributed to the creation of a volatile and unpredictable political environment in the country. Mainstream opposition parties have turned to extraconstitutional tactics, including hartals (general strikes) and violent protests, and the ruling parties have engaged in their own undemocratic practices. The leadership on both sides have failed to use democratic institutions to reconcile their differences. In late 2006, Bangladesh plunged into a major political crisis when the coalition government, dominated by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), failed to reach an agreement with the 14-party opposition Grand Alliance, led by the Awami League (AL), over the formation of a caretaker government (CG) to oversee parliamentary elections in January 2007.
In October 2006, President Iajuddin Ahmed stepped in to lead the CG himself. It was tasked with reorganizing the Election Commission (EC) and updating the voter list in order to pave the way for credible balloting. The opposition decided to take to the streets to pressure Ahmed’s government, leading in December 2006 to an anarchic situation marked by widespread rioting and killings by rival groups.
The country narrowly escaped a total breakdown when the military quietly seized power on January 11, 2007, by instructing President Ahmed to declare a state of emergency and appoint a new, technocratic CG headed by former World Bank executive Fakhruddin Ahmed. Although the promulgation of the emergency measure has restored relative peace and stability, Bangladesh is now confronting the challenge of putting itself back on the path of democracy. Fakhruddin Ahmed’s military-backed government has focused on the restoration of law and order, cracking down on top criminals and corrupt politicians and renewing public trust in key state institutions. These activities seem to have taken precedent over setting a date for the next general elections and reinstating basic human rights. Given that the CG currently enjoys widespread support from ordinary citizens, Western governments, and donor agencies, it is uncertain whether power will be transferred to a democratically elected government in the near future.
Bangladesh's constitution, which was adopted in 1972 and last amended in 2004, provides the framework for the operation of government and the conduct of elections. Bangladesh is a parliamentary democracy, with a president who serves as chief of state, a prime minister who serves as the head of government, and a unicameral, 345 member Parliament. Members of parliament elect the president to a maximum of two five-year terms. The president is responsible for appointing the prime minister, who must command the support of the legislative majority. Despite the president's power to appoint the prime minister, the constitution mandates that the president must act in accordance with the prime minister's advice. Bangladesh's Parliament is composed of members elected by simple majority in single-member districts to five-year terms. In 2004, a constitutional amendment added 45 seats to the 300-seat legislature; these are reserved for women and distributed among political parties in proportion to their legislative strength.
Political turmoil and violence have marred Bangladesh’s elections since independence, with both presidents and prime ministers assassinated or forced into early elections by civil unrest. Since 1990 the Bangladeshi political environment has been dominated by deep-seated enmity between the country’s two most powerful begums (female notables), namely Sheikh Hasina, of the left-of-center coalition led by the AL, and Khaleda Zia, of the center-right alliance headed by the BNP. Zia is the widow of a former military ruler, and Hasina is the daughter of the country’s first prime minister. Neither of the begums has shown any interest in reconciling their personal or political differences through existing political institutions, including the parliament, in recent years. Each in turn has used electoral victory to prevent the other from playing a constructive role in government. Furthermore, both leaders exercise autocratic rule within their respective parties, making it impossible for internal dissenters to challenge party policy.
The dispute over the formation of a preelection caretaker government in late 2006 escalated into the worst political deadlock in Bangladesh’s 35-year history. The problem began in mid-2005, when opposition parties, especially the AL, demanded an immediate restructuring of the constitutional provision for forming caretaker governments and a reorganization of the Election Commission (EC). Much of the controversy revolved around the 14th constitutional amendment, passed on May 14, 2004, which raised the retirement age of judges by two years. The AL claimed that the provision was designed to allow former chief justice K.M. Hasan to become the chief adviser of the caretaker government (CCG). Critics of Zia’s government alleged that Hasan was once a BNP activist and thus was not fit to lead a nonpartisan caretaker government or oversee a credible election.
Since the major political parties could not agree on a CCG, President Iajuddin Ahmed decided to assume the post himself on October 29, 2006, in order to avert a constitutional crisis. As CCG he was tasked with organizing parliamentary elections within 90 days. Although the AL-led alliance vehemently opposed the president’s move, it gave him four days to prove his political neutrality. The alliance also presented an 11-point list of demands, which included the removal of three election commissioners and correction of the voter list. The alliance made it clear that if its demands were not met it would not hesitate to return to the streets.
The CCG’s reluctance to meet the demands of the Grand Alliance immediately brought renewed pessimism to the political landscape, and the alliance decided to mount a new campaign of general strikes and roadblocks. Ahmed responded by deploying the army on December 10, further alienating the opposition. In addition to making the scheduled January 22 parliamentary elections uncertain, the president’s unilateral decision to call in the army caused serious divisions among his key advisers, most of whom would not endorse the move.
The Grand Alliance announced its refusal to participate in the impending elections and added President Ahmed’s resignation as CCG to their growing list of demands, alleging that his goal was a BNP victory and describing him as the “key obstacle” to free, fair, and neutral elections. They launched a nationwide, 72-hour transportation blockade on January 7, and even after the voter list was corrected and updated, the opposition continued to press for the announcement of a new election date, the immediate restructuring of the EC, and the depoliticization of the civil administration. On January 10, Sheikh Hasina announced fresh agitation programs, including a four-day, nationwide blockade of rail, bus, and air services and multiple two-day hartals. The alliance also announced a countrywide demonstration for January 11 to protest police atrocities against Grand Alliance leaders and workers that had taken place during the January 7–9 blockade.
The future of the January 22 elections became even more uncertain when leading foreign diplomats openly voiced their concern over President Ahmed’s handling of the situation and the failure of the major political parties to achieve a consensus on an electoral process. Most of them questioned the CG’s legitimacy as an organizer of credible elections, and made it clear that the international community would not accept the results of voting that was boycotted and resisted by major political parties. The U.S. government urged both the CG and the EC to take immediate steps to ensure a congenial atmosphere, so that all parliamentary parties could participate in the upcoming balloting; the European Commission and the United Nations made similar statements. Pressure began to mount for Ahmed’s resignation as CCG, and international election observers refused to come to Bangladesh to monitor the schedule voting.
Events took a dramatic turn when the military ordered President Ahmed to declare a state of emergency on January 11. He resigned as CCG and postponed the elections. Nine other advisers to the CG also resigned to pave the way for the formation of a new, more acceptable caretaker government capable of holding a credible election within the “shortest possible time.” Meanwhile, the emergency proclamation automatically suspended numerous constitutional protections, including such basic human rights as the freedom of movement, freedom of association, freedom of thought and conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of profession or occupation, and property rights. Critically, the validity of the state of emergency and the suspension of fundamental rights cannot be challenged in court.
On January 12, former World Bank executive Fakhruddin Ahmed was appointed chief adviser of a technocratic caretaker government. The military-backed CG immediately suspended all political activities, indefinitely postponed the elections, took effective measures to reorganize the EC, instructed it to update the voter list, and promised to crack down on “corrupt politicians and godfathers of criminals.” It announced the creation of a joint force including the army, the police, and the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) to curb criminal activities. Within hours of the declaration of the state of emergency, the army began to arrest key political leaders and businessmen, including influential former ministers and noted entrepreneurs, on charges of corruption and irregularities. The CG also put a number of political leaders of both the BNP and the AL under surveillance. In addition to the arrest of high-profile politicians, the military rounded up more than 40,000 alleged criminals and thugs.
Despite uncertainties over the date of the upcoming parliamentary elections, the CG’s effort to bring order and stability seemed to draw widespread support from ordinary citizens, mainstream civil society groups, some influential political parties, and important external actors, namely the U.S. and British governments. The U.S. government considered the emergency declaration an inevitable outcome of the political parties’ failure to “resolve their differences through dialogue.”
Although Bangladesh has witnessed the rotation of political power among the two key political parties since the restoration of democracy in 1991, elections have often failed to give all parties an equal opportunity due to the absence of an effective campaign finance law. The current legal mechanism requires all candidates to submit a detailed report of their campaign financing. It also bars candidates from spending more than 500,000 taka ($8,000) on their election campaigns. It is no secret, however, that most candidates, particularly the winners, spend far more than the limit and use illegal sources to raise money. The current mechanism fails both to ensure the accuracy of candidates’ financial statements and to penalize those who overspend. This has created ideal conditions for corrupt politicians to capture state power and has further strengthened the culture of corruption, favoritism, and nepotism.
Since the return to democracy in 1991, successive regimes have not yet been able to use parliamentary surveillance bodies or government watchdog agencies such as the Anticorruption Commission to make the system responsive, transparent, and accountable. The absence of effective legislative monitoring of the executive has made the situation even worse. Most parliamentary oversight committees—including the Public Estimates Committee, the Public Accounts Committee, and the Public Undertakings Committee—have so far failed to improve accountability and transparency, although they now seem to have the formal power to investigate irregularities and the misuse of state power and public resources. Moreover, the judiciary is politicized and therefore unable to stand as an institutional counterweight to the powerful executive.
Bangladeshi citizens are increasingly losing confidence in the country’s administrative institutions, which are viewed as lacking integrity and efficiency. This is partly due to the politicization of the civil bureaucracy. Instead of maintaining autonomy vis-a-vis political parties, a large number of civil servants, especially those at the senior level, are becoming ever more involved in partisan politics. Analysts worry that this partisanship often begins at the recruitment stage, which is supposed to be managed by a politically neutral agency called the Public Service Commission (PSC). The media and opposition parties have brought a series of allegations against the PSC in recent years, including the charge that it was allowing the ruling BNP’s political interests to influence important decisions regarding recruitment and promotion.
Despite Bangladesh’s dysfunctional system, in recent years the country has seen an expansion of the democratic space necessary for civil society groups to play an important role in protecting and promoting basic human rights. In addition to pursuing an agenda for democracy and human development, these groups, which include think tanks, development groups, advocacy groups, and the media, have succeeded in monitoring and checking the arbitrary exercise of power by ruling elites.
In recent years, development and advocacy groups have also enjoyed a great deal of autonomy vis-a-vis the state. Despite a cumbersome bureaucratic process of registration and funding approval, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been able to carry out their routine activities largely without state interference. The government has shown serious interest in building partnerships with NGOs to deliver key services to citizens. The NGO sector has also continued to enjoy widespread financial and political support from external organizations. Key donor organizations have worked closely with the country’s renowned voluntary sector, which has continued to represent the interests of various marginalized communities, including women and the rural poor.
While most NGOs are able to implement their programs without any serious political interference, the relationship between the state and a few groups, including the development NGO Proshika and Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB), remains very tense. The BNP government maintained that Proshika is a partisan, antigovernment group, and the caretaker regime of Fakhruddin Ahmed has not altered that stance. In early February 2007, the NGO Affairs Bureau refused to release 1.98 billion taka ($29 million) in foreign grants to Proshika on the grounds that it was engaged in antigovernment activities. Separately, the BNP-led coalition government in 2006 refused to accept the findings of TIB’s national corruption survey, claiming that the report was methodologically flawed and politically biased.
Bangladesh’s lively media operate in what the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) calls relative freedom from direct government control and censorship. Protected by the constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press, both the print and electronic media seem to enjoy a great deal of latitude in reporting virtually any event of sociopolitical importance. However, the hostility of the civil bureaucracy, various regulatory laws, and Article 39 of the constitution—which provides exceptions to the press freedom guarantee in matters of state security, defamation, and incitement—often limit the ability of the press to report evidence of governmental failures, question state policies, and scrutinize key leaders. Although the government has not used much of its regulatory authority to control the media in the past two years, it still has absolute power over issuing or revoking operating licenses. The independence of the country’s media is also threatened by the editorial bias of outlet owners. A number of popular dailies and television stations are now owned by business or political leaders who are primarily interested in advancing their personal and partisan interests. Some media conglomerates appear to have become active agents of partisan politics in recent years.
Given the frequent use of criminal defamation laws by influential members of the ruling coalition, the relationship between the government and the mainstream media has become more confrontational in the past two years. A case filed by Public Works Minister Mirza Abbas against the publisher and the editor of the daily Prothom Alo drew attention from both national and international human rights activists, who viewed it as an attempt to restrict press freedom. Similar legal actions by government officials against journalists in different parts of the country also cast profound doubts on the ability of the press to perform its duties freely. Threats of violence against news correspondents by political groups also increased in the past two years. In its 2006 annual report, Reporters Without Borders stated that 70 journalists were forced to flee their homes because of the fear of physical violence in 2005. Some of them reportedly received death threats from political groups and militant organizations, and a Maoist armed group killed two reporters that year.
Although no journalists were murdered in 2006, a number of news correspondents were physically assaulted by political activists, police, and gang members. Between March and May 2006, some 36 journalists were attacked by supporters of the ruling BNP. In April 2006, police attacked and injured 20 journalists in the port city of Chittagong during a cricket match between Bangladesh and Australia. The journalists were protesting the ruthless beating of a photojournalist by the police earlier that day. Attacks on journalists suddenly increased just after the establishment of President Ahmed’s caretaker government in October 2006, but then again dramatically decreased after the entry of the new CG in January 2007. However, unfavorable media environment remains as the Emergency Power Act of 2007 has severely restricted freedom of the press. The government now has the ability to impose a ban on any political news coverage that it considers provocative or harmful. The emergency act has given the government sweeping power to seize printed materials, hinder access to the internet, confiscate broadcast equipment and printing presses, and censor news items. Violators can be jailed for up to five years.
Bangladesh’s constitution guarantees the protection of basic human rights, including freedom of assembly and expression. The country has ratified all the major international treaties that recognize the inherent dignity of all citizens regardless of their gender, class, ethnicity, and religion, as well as those that promote freedom, justice, and security. However, gross violations of human rights have continued in recent years, and the government has failed to make a dent in the climate of impunity that has long pervaded Bangladesh.
The BNP-led coalition government aimed to curb growing crime and terrorism through the creation in 2004 of a new security force popularly known as the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). This force, composed of personnel from the army and the police, has actually worsened the country’s human rights record. Although the battalion has enjoyed widespread public support, partly because of its apparent success in cracking down on hitherto untouchable gangsters, thugs, and criminals, it has been accused of torturing innocent people and killing alleged criminals in what it calls crossfire.
According to recent official statistics, as of March 7, 2007, the RAB had arrested 17,332 people on various charges and killed 397 people in “exchanges of fire.” Of the arrested individuals, two were described as top terrorists, 685 others were also called terrorists, 83 were listed criminals, and 305 were suspected members of the banned militant Islamist organization Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). Both donor agencies and human rights activists have expressed deep concern over the RAB’s use of undemocratic means to curb crime in Bangladesh. Many claim that the RAB has routinely engaged in extrajudicial and unlawful killings, arbitrarily arrested and tortured people on unfounded criminal charges, and denied the fundamental right of arrested individuals to be tried in a court of law.
The police forces, which remain institutionally weak and corrupt, have also been accused of routinely making arbitrary arrests, attacking opposition rallies, and torturing arrested individuals to obtain confessions. Police have allegedly used Section 54 of the criminal procedure code to arrest people without a warrant and detain them for 24 hours without allowing access to lawyers and family members. The police arbitrarily arrested a large number of opposition supporters during the political rallies, blockades, and hartals in 2005 and 2006. In most cases, those arrested were detained for weeks without a trial. Deaths in police custody remain a major concern for human rights activists in Bangladesh. Some 51 prisoners, of whom 32 were standing trial, were reported to have died in 2006 alone. The brutality of prison guards, violent actions by fellow inmates, and the denial of prompt medical treatment are cited as major causes of the deaths of these prisoners.
In spite of some recent initiatives, Zia’s government was not able to significantly reduce Bangladesh’s historically rooted political violence. In one incident on January 27, 2005, a grenade attack at an AL rally in Habiganj killed five opposition supporters, including former finance minister S.M.S. Kibria. After carrying out an investigation, the police charged a handful of suspects, including local BNP leaders. The government did not meet demands for a public inquiry into the attack.
In 2005, the country also witnessed an escalation in violent political attacks by the JMB. The group claimed responsibility for some 400 coordinated bomb attacks on August 17, 2005, that targeted government offices and buildings in 63 of the country’s 64 districts, killing two people and injuring hundreds. The JMB was also allegedly responsible for Bangladesh’s first suicide bombing, in November 2005, which killed dozens of people and injured several hundred.
Responding to growing criticism over its failure to address political extremism, the BNP-led coalition government acted quickly to launch investigations and bring the perpetrators to justice. Between December 2005 and October 2006, the authorities arrested more than 300 alleged militants, including the six leaders of JMB; filed 241 cases; and sentenced 29 people to either death or life in prison. The government also banned all activities of four extremist groups, including the JMB. On November 28, 2006, the Supreme Court rejected the appeals of six of the seven militants sentenced to death, allowing their executions to proceed on March 30, 2007.
Although the constitution declares equal rights for men and women in all spheres of public life, civil and criminal laws often discriminate against women. However, evidence suggests that NGO programs, government initiatives, and tougher laws have contributed to the improvement of women’s status in recent years. According to a 2005 report by the International Labor Organization, women’s participation in the Bangladeshi labor market has increased in recent decades, and women are now represented in a variety of economic sectors. They now hold important public offices, serve as private-sector professionals, and lead social movements that seek to place women at the forefront of political change. This progress has been bolstered by the 14th constitutional amendment, which reserves 45 of parliament’s 345 seats for women. Nonetheless, women still face discrimination, receive lower wages than male workers, and are less well represented in the formal sector
These positive changes have apparently failed to reduce violence against women. While the absence of reliable data makes it difficult to determine whether gender-based violence has increased or decreased in the last few years, recent news reports confirm that it is still widespread. According to Amnesty International, in the first quarter of 2005 “more than 1,900 women were allegedly subjected to violence, over 200 were killed allegedly following rape, over 300 women were allegedly abused for not meeting their husband’s dowry demands, and over 100 were trafficked.” The same report states that 138 women were the victims of acid attacks in the first nine months of 2005. A large number of crimes against women go unreported, particularly in rural areas, where social stigma coupled with the indifference or hostility of the police often forces female victims to keep their traditional silence. Furthermore, most of these victims lack the social and financial support necessary to seek justice.
Despite constitutional guarantees against both religious discrimination and the exploitation of religion for political purposes, ethnic and religious minorities continue to experience discrimination and violence. Yielding to both national and international pressure, the government in recent years has taken some important steps to curb violence against minorities, including Hindus, Ahmadis, and different ethnic groups in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). For example, it has attempted to protect Hindus, who account for roughly 16 percent of the population, during their major festivals and in times of sociopolitical crisis. However, the Hindu minority remains vulnerable, and the authorities have failed to adequately investigate and punish previous attacks.
Similarly, the government’s efforts to prevent organized persecution of the Ahmadi community have proven inadequate. The sect, which has some 100,000 members in the country, is seen as heretical by many Muslims. Although most human rights activists hailed a December 2004 Supreme Court order suspending the ban on Ahmadi publications and welcomed recent government action to prevent anti-Ahmadi groups from entering Ahmadi mosques, agitation against the community continues to threaten members’ physical safety.
The political climate in the CHT has generally improved in the past several years, but the government has not been able to increase security for the region’s various tribal groups, in part because of its failure to fully implement a 1997 peace accord designed to end a tribal insurgency. A recent Amnesty International report asserts that “tribal people continue to be the targets of mass attacks by Bengali settlers apparently aided by army personnel acting with impunity. The government has apparently failed to prevent these abuses or to bring those perpetrating them to justice.”
Despite Bangladesh’s strong tradition of trade unionism, some two million workers in the garment sector, which accounts for more than $6 billion in cumulative investments and $8 billion in annual exports, are reportedly denied the right to fair and humane treatment. Factors including government inaction, factory owners’ intransigence, and the absence of an effective pay-equity law have resulted in appalling and unsafe working conditions for the garment industry’s largely female workforce. Most of the workers face overt wage discrimination based on gender and social class. Following a series of deadly fires in garment factories over the past few years, workers have begun to organize themselves into effective unions, campaigning for a minimum wage, safe working environments, paid maternity leave, and overtime pay. However, they are often subjected to physical attacks and dismissal threats by management. In May and June 2006, the striking workers of several knitwear factories in Gazipur and Savar were assaulted by police and gangs reportedly hired by the factory owners. Although a tripartite Minimum Wage Board recommended an increase in the minimum wage, most of the workers’ demands were not even addressed by the government or the owners.
Permits for public protests are not legally required, but freedom of assembly is limited in practice. According to a recent report by Amnesty International, opposition supporters were often subjected to police brutality during protest meetings in 2006. Opposition rallies were also attacked by members of the ruling BNP and its coalition partners, who injured a large number of AL supporters in both 2005 and 2006. In addition, the police used excessive force in dealing with spontaneous protests, including those arising from a 2006 electricity crisis. Amnesty International reported that in April 2006 at least a dozen people protesting the shortages in the northern town of Kansat were killed when police opened fire on them. The government has not brought anyone responsible for these killings to justice.
Bangladesh’s ability to develop a rules-based, transparent, and predictable system of governance is severely constrained by its legal system, which is considered outdated and understaffed. The current system lacks efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability, causing long and in most cases unnecessary delays in the delivery of justice. Increasing politicization of the judiciary, a deeply flawed police force, and growing corruption have seriously undermined the rule of law.
Although Section 22 of the constitution calls for an independent judiciary, the lower courts operate under the political control of the executive branch. Various government ministries, often acting under the orders of the ruling party, make all important decisions regarding appointments, transfers, and promotions of lower-court judges and magistrates. It has become a tradition for ruling parties to use government departments to influence the enforcement of law. In addition to protecting ruling party members from prosecution, successive governments have used the lower judiciary to harass opposition activists and dissident voices. The political appointment of prosecutors also negatively affects the rule of law. Prosecutors often lose their jobs before the completion of their tenure if they fail to satisfy ruling elites.
The situation is deteriorating for higher courts, including the High Court and the Supreme Court (SC), whose judges are appointed by the president based primarily on their loyalty to the ruling party. Because the constitution stipulates that the most recent former chief justice is appointed as CCG prior to elections, Zia’s BNP-led government was particularly interested in finding a suitable candidate for the post. Mainstream opposition parties claim that the BNP-backed constitutional amendment of 2004 was specifically designed to allow Chief Justice K.M. Hasan to become the CCG and conduct the January 2007 elections.
Although a 1999 SC decision called for the effective separation of the judiciary from the executive branch, successive governments have found ways to delay implementing rules that would free the courts from political control. When the CCG of 2001 launched a plan to liberate the judiciary from the executive, both the AL and the BNP asked the government to wait. After coming to power later that year, the BNP-led coalition government continued to appeal to the SC to extend the deadline. On October 20, 2005, the SC rejected the government’s 21st appeal on the subject, expressing its grave concern over the government’s reluctance to implement the court’s 1999 decision. On January 5, 2006, the SC struck down yet another government request for an extension, making clear that it would not entertain any such appeals in the future, and two contempt-of-court cases were opened against the government for its failure to implement the 1999 SC order.
On January 16, 2007, the new CG made the decision to end the saga by publishing official notifications of key rules on judicial independence. The measures provide recruitment guidelines for lower-court judges; recommend judicial salaries, allowances, and other benefits; and lay out the organization and disciplinary system of the judicial service. Collectively, these rules ensure that the lower courts and magistrates, previously under the control of government departments, will be brought under the authority of the SC.
Bangladesh has no program to safeguard victims and witnesses against intimidation by the accused, and the government does not take responsibility for compensating or rehabilitating victims. The inefficiency of all levels of bureaucracy makes the pursuit of complaints even more difficult. A number of recent studies have shown that the poor, including women and other marginalized groups, do not have access to the same legal opportunities and benefits as more privileged segments of the population, and that current laws and legal institutions routinely fail to protect them from arbitrary and unfair treatment by powerful sociopolitical actors.
In addition, the country also lacks a well-functioning alternative dispute-resolution mechanism, such as mediation.
While the legal system assumes that individuals charged with criminal acts are innocent until proven guilty, there is no guaranteed access to essential financial or legal assistance. A number of advocacy groups—including Ain O Shalish Kendra (ASK), Bangladesh Legal Aid Services (BLAST), Bangladesh National Women’s Lawyers Association (BNWLA)—and some development NGOs have recently stepped up their efforts to help the poor gain access to justice. However, resource constraints, coupled with the programs’ relatively recent launches, prevent them from offering services to all communities in need. It is virtually impossible for such voluntary legal clinics to make up for the absence of publicly funded legal aid.
The Bangladeshi constitution guarantees the property rights of both individuals and private firms, and the current legal system generally allows citizens to utilize, sell, and invest in properties without undue interference. However, weak enforcement, high levels of corruption, governmental inability to protect the rights of marginalized communities (including ethnic and religious minorities), and the highly flawed property registration process often deny people full access to land and other key properties. Bangladesh’s poor record was clearly reflected in the 2007 International Property Rights Index (IPRI), which ranked the country as the worst performer of the 70 countries evaluated. Bangladesh proved disappointing in nearly every sector of the index, including legal and political environment, physical property rights, and intellectual property rights. Compared with 14 other countries in the region, however, Bangladesh did well in gender equality regarding such issues as access to land, access to bank loans, and inheritance.
Until the indirect seizure of power by the military in early January 2007, all security forces—including the national police force, the paramilitary force known as the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), and the regular military—were operating under the control of the civilian government. Both the police force and BDR are controlled by the Ministry of Home Affairs, while the military is managed by the Ministry of Defense. None of these security services had made any direct effort to take control of the government for many years, but the military played a major role in political affairs prior to the 1990s, and it has since remained an important political force. Successive governments have occasionally called in the military to crack down on criminals, restore law and order, and deal with other emergency situations. The BNP-led coalition government first used the military in 2002 during its four-month-long Operation Clean Heart campaign, in which 44 people were reportedly killed in army custody and a large number of people were rounded up without specific charges. The army has also played an important role in the RAB’s anticrime drives since the unit’s formation in 2004.
After the January 2007 emergency declaration, the army’s desire for veto power over Bangladesh’s political system first became evident in early March, when Fakhruddin Ahmed’s CG announced the creation of a National Security Council. The council will include the chiefs of the army, air force, and navy. Although the CCG will be the head of the council, it gives “the army a formal mechanism for bossing the administration it installed in January.” The formation of the council was “in effect an admission by the army’s top brass that it has become impossible to govern the country behind the curtain any longer.”
The armed forces now seem to be at the forefront of Fakhruddin Ahmed’s ambitious plan to free the country from the control of corrupt and immensely powerful politicians within the shortest possible time. While this effort has drawn widespread support from ordinary citizens, the authorities have failed to ensure basic human rights during their crackdowns on alleged criminals, and there is no independent mechanism, such as a national ombudsman, to investigate complaints against the armed forces or the police.
Recent studies conducted by major donor agencies, including the World Bank, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), suggest that Bangladesh’s latest achievements in macroeconomic management and private-sector development have been impressive when compared with many other Asian countries. The economy grew at a strong rate of 5.6 and 6.7 percent in 2005 and 2006, respectively, despite challenges including devastating floods in 2004 that affected some 40 percent of the country, shocks resulting from the depreciation of the U.S. dollar, higher oil prices, and increased political unrest and violence. The government’s reform programs have continued to reduce the role of the state in the national economy, kept the fiscal and current account imbalances at a manageable level, and maintained low inflation rates.
However, Bangladesh’s bureaucracy, which lacks accountability, transparency, and predictability, has remained a major source of frustration for both investors and ordinary citizens. Excessive centralization in decision-making processes, coupled with the growing problem of weak contract enforcement, have significantly increased the cost of doing business and set the stage for institutionalized forms of corruption. Increased alignment between big business and ruling party elites has made it even easier for policymakers to use public office to advance personal goals, and the growing presence of businessmen in government has eroded the state’s ability to enforce contracts impartially. Businessmen accounted for more than 60 percent of the members of parliament elected in 2001, and were represented in both the BNP and the AL. Many of these entrepreneur-lawmakers reportedly have used their newfound political power to “secure control over disbursement of public resources and influence public procurements.” Although public officials are legally required to submit financial statements, most either do not bother to disclose their finances or submit statements containing false information. Furthermore, unlike in most democracies, it is not mandatory in Bangladesh for senior bureaucrats to disclose their expenses, and powerful public figures are rarely investigated or prosecuted for corruption.
Corruption has become so endemic in recent years that most people regard it as a fact of life. According to a recent survey conducted by the Bangladesh Unnayan Parishad, a Dhaka-based think tank, Bangladeshis believe that the government agencies tasked with enforcing the law are themselves the source of all kinds of corruption. Some 95 percent of respondents stated that the police were the most corrupt department, followed closely by customs, other arms of the executive branch, and the judiciary. Transparency International’s 2006 Global Corruption Report concurs with these findings, asserting that corruption is rampant in both the police and customs departments. Traders routinely bribe customs officials to get their shipments through the port of Chittagong, which accounts for 75 percent of the country’s exports and imports. High levels of corruption also exist at the National Board of Revenue (NBR), which is responsible for collecting taxes from individuals and businesses. Considering the scale of the graft, it is no surprise that the country has only 1.4 million registered taxpayers and just 300,000 businesses registered to pay the valued added tax (VAT) collected from consumers. NBR officials allegedly help both individuals and businessmen to avoid taxes in exchange for bribes.
The BNP government decided to set up a tax ombudsman’s office in December 2004 to deal with tax-related malpractice and injustice. The relevant legislation was enacted by the parliament in July 2005. However, the government waited another year before it appointed the first tax ombudsman in July 2006, and the office was not able to launch its operations formally until that December. Since its inception, it has received only 30 complaints against NBR officials. The tax ombudsman recently expressed his dissatisfaction with the response to his office’s efforts. Most taxpayer complaints apparently did not provide any details about the accused officials’ alleged misdeeds.
Progress was also very slow in launching the Anticorruption Commission (ACC), which was first set up in February 2004 under tremendous pressure from the donor community. Serious questions arose about the body’s independence, as the government reportedly appointed the commissioners on a partisan basis. The ACC’s lack of financial autonomy and its inability to develop an acceptable staff-recruitment policy have also seriously undermined its credibility. It remained fairly inactive until the formation of Fakhruddin Ahmed’s CG in January 2007. Since then, the ACC has aggressively pursued its mission.
Continued political pressure makes the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) largely ineffective in auditing government operations and providing the parliament with independent information and advice on the stewardship of public funds. Given the lack of a comprehensive procurement policy, the CAG often fails to conduct appropriate audits of state purchases or enforce strict financial discipline through annual departmental reviews. Political pressures reduce the scope for the auditors to prepare financial statements based on actual facts, and in most cases auditors are not empowered to include opinions on the legality of the examined transactions. The CAG generally does not bring gross irregularities to the attention of the public or parliament.
Despite the politicization of universities in Bangladesh, most educational institutions have managed to maintain their academic integrity. With a few exceptions, students’ academic performance determines their progress. The admissions process is usually based on an open competition for the places available, and the majority of those admitted have scores substantially above the minimums set by the respective universities.
Lack of transparency has long been a feature of Bangladesh’s political system. Citizens are often unaware of how key policies are formulated, important decisions are made, and public resources are distributed. Successive governments have promoted a culture of secrecy that pervades almost all areas of decision making. The lack of public scrutiny and participation enables corruption, cronyism, and nepotism on the part of public officials. The BNP-led coalition government made no concrete effort to reverse this frustrating situation, though it took the minor step of revamping the websites of most government departments, which now provide information on rules, regulations, and requirements for government services.
Budget making remains a fairly top-down process in which various powerful actors use their political heft to steer allocations toward their agencies, but do not follow an overall strategic vision. The absence of computerized accounting and reporting and the shortcomings in procurement policy also make the financial management system ineffective. In recent years, however, the government has made efforts to introduce strategic budgeting and improve the coordination of capital and recurring budgets. Yielding to donor pressures, the government also introduced reform programs to computerize the financial management system and strengthen the role of the CAG in auditing public expenditures. Although the BNP-led government adopted a more effective legal framework for procurement that ensures open bidding and fair competition among all parties, it did not fully implement it. The government, through the activities of the Economic Relations Division, has generally been responsive to the demands of the donor community regarding the proper administration and allocation of foreign aid.
- The caretaker government should immediately rescind the state of emergency and make necessary arrangements for holding free and fair elections before the end of 2007.
- The role of caretaker governments should be limited to assisting the Election Commission in organizing credible general elections, making sure that the administration does not get involved in promoting a particular group or party.
- The Election Commission should be reformed to ensure that it is completely free from government interference. It should enjoy full financial and administrative autonomy so that it can perform all of its duties, including the appointment of election officers and updating the voter list, in an impartial and technocratic fashion. Moreover, the commission should be empowered to amend current campaign finance laws and regulations, and to strictly enforce them to prevent candidates’ use of illicit “black money.”
- The appointment of election commissioners should be confirmed only after consensus is developed through open dialogue with political parties and key civil society groups.
- The government should increase the resources devoted to investigating attacks against the press, paying particular attention to violence committed by thugs associated with political parties.
- The government should immediately set up an independent national human rights commission to closely monitor human rights. This comission should be able to conduct thorough investigations of complaints of discrimination and harassment based on religion, ethnicity, gender, and class. Existing laws need to be changed or enforced to ensure equal treatment regardless of religion, race, and ethnicity.
- The government should intervene to protect people facing discrimination in employment based on membership in professional associations and trade unions.
- Top leaders of political parties should be held responsible for violence perpetrated by partisan thugs during public protests.
- In consultation with the proposed human rights commission and civil society groups, the government should undertake extensive programs of public education to make people aware of their basic human rights.
- The country should set up an ombudsman to receive and investigate complaints about the actions of various government entities, including the justice system, the police and the armed forces.
- A new, efficient system of property registration should be enacted that does not discriminate based on gender or ethnicity.
- The current CG’s plan for separating the judiciary from the executive branch should be implemented without any further delay.
- The government should work with civil society groups to implement a national system of legal aid with sufficient organization and resources to broaden vastly the degree of legal aid available in the country.
- The Anticorruption Commission should emerge as an independent agency capable of confronting rampant extortion and bribery. It should be legally autonomous and have the power to subpoena information from officials.
- The government should introduce a reform program aimed at improving transparency. All government officials should be required to submit an annual statement of personal assets, and senior officials should also disclose their annual travel and hospitality expenses.
- The Office of Comptroller and Auditor General should be given the power and authority to carry out routine performance audits and studies of all government departments and agencies, without interference from the political leadership.
- The country should set up a new service program designed to give citizens easy, one-stop access to necessary information on all government policies, programs, and actions. This service should also give dissatisfied individuals the ability to complain and hold government officials personally accountable for their actions.
 Recent media reports suggest that the return of relative stability to Bangladesh’s chaotic political environment has created some optimism among ordinary citizens.
 Abdul Hannan, “Has the Government Lost Touch with People?” Daily Star (Dhaka), 7 November 2005.
“Iajuddin ‘Key Obstacle’ to Fair Polls: AL, LDP Tell EU Observer,” Daily Star, 21 December 2006.
 “Hasina Declares Tougher Actions,” Daily Star, 11 January 2007.
 “Pressure on CA Mounts to Ensure All-Party Poll: Burns Calls Iajuddin,” Daily Star, 9 January 2007.
 “Int’l Community Puts Immense Pressure on Iajuddin,” Daily Star, 12 January 2007.
 Various reports now suggest that the military quietly seized power without making it public. See Sengupta Somini, “Bangladesh Military Government Holds 40 in Graft Sweep,” New York Times, 14 March 2007; “Bangladesh: Everybody But the Politicians Is Happy,” Economist 382, no. 8515 (10 February 2007): 64.
 Shakhawat Liton, “Emergency Declared: Iajuddin Quits as Chief Adviser,” Daily Star, 12 January 2007.
 “US, UK Reaction to Emergency,” Daily Star, 13 January 2007.
 World Bank, Bangladesh Country Assessment Strategy: 2006–2009 (Washington D.C.: World Bank, 2006), 17.
 World Bank, Bangladesh PRSP Forum Economic Update: Recent Developments and Future Perspectives (Dhaka: World Bank, November 2005).
 Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) University Center for Government Studies (CGS), The State of Governance in Bangladesh, 2006 (Dhaka: BRAC University, CGS, 2007).
 World Bank, Bangladesh Country Assessment Strategy: 2006–2009, 16.
 The donors are now channeling more than 25 percent of their total aid through the voluntary sector. See ibid.
 Rashidul Hassan, “NGO Bureau Yet to Release Tk 198 Cr to Proshika,” Daily Star, 23 February 2007.
 CGS, The State of Governance in Bangladesh, 2006, 119.
 Ibid., 126.
 Bob Dietz, “Bangladesh,” in Attacks on the Press in 2006 (New York: Committee to Protect Journalists [CPJ], 2006).
 CGS, The State of Governance in Bangladesh, 2006, 86.
 See European Commission (EC), “The EU’s Relations with Bangladesh,” EC, April 2007, http://www.ec.europa.eu/comm/external_relations/bangladesh/intro/index.htm.
 Aasha Mehreen Amin and Kajalie Shehreen Islam, “A Successful Police State,” Star Weekend Magazine 5, no. 118 (3 November 2006): 13.
 Human Rights Watch (HRW), World Report 2007 (New York: HRW, 2007), http://hrw.org/englishwr2k7/docs/2007/01/11/bangla14864.htm.
 Julfikar Ali Manik, “Only Presidential Mercy Can Now Save JMB Leaders,” Daily Star, 29 November 2006.
 Rushidan Islam Rahman and Naoko Otobe, “The Dynamics of the Labor Market and Employment in Bangladesh: A Focus on Gender Dimensions,” Employment Strategy Papers (Geneva: International Labor Organization, 2005), http://www.ilo.org/public/english/employment/strat/download/esp2005-13.pdf
 Ibid., 9.
 CGS, The State of Governance in Bangladesh, 2006, 80.
 Amnesty International (AI), Bangladesh: Briefing to Political Parties for a Human Rights Agenda (Dhaka: AI, October 2006), 7.
 Asian Development Bank (ADB), Bangladesh: Quarterly Economic Update (ADB, December 2006), 3.
 HRW, World Report 2007.
 AI, op. cit., 8.
 Ibid., 10.
 Recent studies suggest that the people have little or no confidence in the police force, which lacks responsiveness, accountability, and professionalism. The police are also seen to be the most corrupt organization in Bangladesh. See Manzoor Hasan, Corruption in Bangladesh Surveys: An Overview (Dhaka: Transparency International Bangladesh [TIB], 2002).
 Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), “Bangladesh: Lawless Law-Enforcement and the Parody of Judiciary,” news release, 24 August 2006, http://www.ahrchk.net/statements/mainfile.php/2006statements/702/.
 M. Shah Alam, Independence and Accountability of Judiciary: A Critical Review (Dhaka: Centre for Rights and Governance, 2004).
 World Bank, Poverty in Bangladesh: Building On Progress (World Bank, South Asia Region, 2002); U.S. Department of State, Country Commercial Guide for Bangladesh (Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of State, 2003).
 International Property Rights Index (IPRI), 2007 Report (Washington, D.C.: IPRI, 2007), http://internationalpropertyrightsindex.org/index.php?content=cdata&coun....
 “Bangladesh: One Begum Down,” Economist 382, no. 8519 (10 March 2007): 69.
 World Bank, Bangladesh Country Assessment Strategy: 2006–2009, 11–16.
 ADB, Bangladesh: Quarterly Economic Update, 6–14.
 “Clean Finance for Competent Candidates, Credible Elections,” New Age (Dhaka), 4 September 2006.
 Transparency International, Global Corruption Report 2006 (London: Pluto Press, 2006), 128.
 “Complaints of Tax Harassment Will Be Taken Seriously: Tax Ombudsman,” Independent (Dhaka), 13 March 2007.
 World Bank, Bangladesh Country Assessment Strategy: 2006–2009, 18–20.