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The political gridlock that has undermined Bangladesh's economy since the mid-1990s continued in early 2001, as the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and three allies boycotted parliament and organized several nationwide strikes. Ignoring the opposition's demand for early elections, On June 23, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed became the first premier to complete a full five-year term in office . In national elections held on October 1, however, the ruling Awami League party was voted out of office in elections marred by political violence and intimidation.
With the partition of British India in 1947, Bangladesh became the eastern part of the newly formed state of Pakistan. Bangladesh won independence in December 1971 after Indian troops helped defeat occupying West Pakistani forces in a nine-month war. The 1975 assassination of Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman by soldiers precipitated 15 years of often-turbulent military rule and continues to polarize Bangladeshi politics. The country's democratic transition began with the resignation in 1990 of the last military ruler, General H. M. Ershad, after weeks of prodemocracy demonstrations. Elections in 1991 brought the BNP to power under Khaleda Zia.
The political strikes and parliamentary boycotts began in 1994, when Hasina's center-left Awami League began boycotting parliament to protest alleged corruption in Zia's BNP government. The Awami League and the BNP differ relatively little on domestic policy. Many disputes reflect the personal animosity between Hasina, the daughter of independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and Zia, the widow of a former military ruler allegedly complicit in Sheikh Mujibur's 1975 assassination. The Awami League boycotted the February 1996 elections, which the BNP won, but forced Zia's resignation in March. At the June 1996 elections, held with a 73 percent turnout, the Awami League won 146 of 300 parliamentary seats while the BNP won 113.
Under Hasina, the government signed a 1996 Ganges River water-sharing accord with India and a 1997 accord ending a low-grade insurgency in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). Hasina's government also has allowed foreign companies to invest in offshore natural gas exploration, though it has refused to permit gas to be exported until Bangladesh accumulates a 50-year reserve. By some estimates, Bangladesh also achieved near self-sufficiency in food production over the past four years. An October 2000 World Bank report praised Bangladesh's fiscal year 2000 growth of 5.2 percent, but noted that each one-day nationwide strike costs the economy $60 million.
Hasina's government contributed to political tensions in January 2000 by passing a controversial public order law that it said would improve law and order. The opposition said the law could be used against its members and to break general strikes. After several shooting incidents that killed 18 soldiers, tension with India mounted in April 2001 over a disputed section of the border.
In July 2001, Latifur Rahman, a former chief justice, was sworn in as interim prime minister and head of a caretaker administration that was charged with governing the country ahead of the elections scheduled for October. Police arrested nearly 60,000 people in August as part of a drive to improve law and order, as well as tightening gun controls. On election day, access for the country's 500,000 cell phones was switched off before voting started, in order to hinder potential troublemakers. Nevertheless, politically motivated violence continued to be a problem. A Dhaka-based organization, Democracywatch, estimated that 95 people were killed in political violence and 5,100 injured between July and September. More than 140 people were killed throughout the entire campaign period, and three died during the polling, in what was Bangladesh's most violent election to date.
A new four-party coalition, led by the BNP and also including two hardline Muslim parties, the Jamaat-e-Islami and Islami Oikyo Jote, was sworn into power on October 10 with a convincing majority of 214 of the 300 seats in parliament. However, the Awami League claimed that the vote had been rigged and announced that it intended to boycott parliamentary proceedings. Zia announced soon after taking office that her top priority would be to free Bangladesh from lawlessness and corruption. In December, corruption charges were filed against former Prime Minister Hasina as well as several members of her government, accusing her of plundering $126 million in state funds while in office.
Bangladeshis can change their government through elections. A referendum held in 1991 transformed the powerful presidency into a largely ceremonial head-of-state position in a parliamentary system. Lower-house elections are held in single-member districts under a simple-plurality rule. The June 1996 vote was the first under a constitutional amendment requiring a caretaker government to conduct elections; it was Bangladesh's freest election despite some violence and irregularities. In October 2001, roughly 2000 candidates stood in national elections that were monitored by more than 300,000 election observers. International monitors described the poll as generally free and fair, but expressed concern over intimidation and violence.
Both major parties have undermined the legislative process through lengthy parliamentary boycotts while in opposition. In recent years, political violence during demonstrations and general strikes has killed dozens of people in major cities. Opposition-led strikes held in February and April resulted in several deaths and hundreds of injuries. Awami League activists continued in 2001 to forcibly break up some opposition rallies, and police often used excessive force against opposition protesters. Student wings of political parties continue to be embroiled in violent campus conflicts. In June, a bomb attack on an Awami League office near Dhaka resulted in the death of 22 people and injuries to over 100 more.
The supreme court is independent, but according to the U.S. State Department's country report for 2000, lower-level courts are "reluctant to challenge government decisions." Lower courts are also rife with corruption and are severely backlogged, and pretrial detention is lengthy. Many defendants lack counsel, and poor people have limited recourse through the courts. Amnesty International said in November 2000 that successive governments since independence have tolerated "widespread and persistent" torture. Police also routinely rape suspects and prisoners. The majority of police abuses go unpunished, which results in a climate of impunity. Prison conditions are extremely poor.
Authorities continued to occasionally and arbitrarily detain political opponents and ordinary citizens, and to detain citizens without charge under the 1974 Special Powers Act. The government generally detains political opponents for short periods, and many of these detentions appear to be politically motivated. The broadly drawn Public Safety Act that came into effect in February 2000 provides for jail terms of between 2 and 14 years for hijacking, committing extortion, damaging property, obstructing traffic, "causing panic," and other offenses. Human rights advocates have sharply criticized the practice under which authorities place some female victims of rape, kidnapping, prostitution, and trafficking in "safe custody" in prison, where they are vulnerable to rape and other abuses.
The print media are diverse and often critical of the government. However, journalists frequently face pressure from organized crime groups, political parties, the government, and Islamic fundamentalists, and practice some self-censorship. In April, the Committee to Protect Journalists warned that the number of violent attacks on journalists had risen sharply in 2001, noting that in a single week in April, one journalist died and three were injured in attacks by armed assailants. In the first half of the year, 50 cases of violence against journalists who had reported on corruption, political violence, and religious intolerance had been reported. In July, the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres called for an investigation into the murder of Ahsan Ali, a journalist with the Dhaka-based newspaper Dainik Jugantor, who had reportedly received death threats from a local Awami League student leader. In addition, journalists were targeted in October as part of a wave of postelection violence. In November, the government arrested and began a treason investigation against leading journalist Shahriar Kabir after he made a documentary about Hindus who fled to India in the wake of the elections. In an effort to cover up their abuses of protesters, police occasionally beat journalists covering demonstrations. Political considerations influence the distribution of government advertising revenue and subsidized newsprint, upon which most publications are dependent. The state-owned Bangladesh Radio and Television controls most broadcast media, whose coverage favors the ruling party. Prior to the elections, a bid to temporarily close down Ekushey Television, the country's only private terrestrial broadcaster, was overturned by the supreme court.
Rape, dowry-related assaults, acid-throwing, and other violence against women occur relatively frequently. According to the Acid Survivors Foundation, the number of acid attacks jumped 50 percent in 2001; of the 338 attacks registered throughout Bangladesh last year, the majority were carried out against women fleeing arranged marriages. A September 2000 United Nations report said that 47 percent of all Bangladeshi women are subjected to domestic violence. A law requiring rape victims to file police reports and obtain medical certificates within 24 hours of the crime in order to press charges prevents most rape cases from reaching the courts. Police also accept bribes not to register rape cases and rarely enforce existing laws protecting women. In rural areas religious leaders occasionally issue fatwas (religious edicts) that impose floggings and other punishments on women accused of violating strict moral codes. However, in a landmark decision in January, the supreme court ruled that all fatwas were illegal and should be made punishable by an act of parliament. Women also face discrimination in health care, education, and employment, and are underrepresented in politics and government. As a result of parliamentary deadlocks throughout the year, a provision that granted women 30 reserved seats in parliament has been allowed to lapse. Under customary laws of the minority Hindu community, women have no legal right of divorce or inheritance. Muslim women in theory enjoy greater legal protection in family matters, but these laws are routinely flouted.
The Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association said in a 1999 report that organized groups traffick nearly 25,000 Bangladeshi women and children each year into Middle Eastern and other South Asian countries for the purposes of prostitution and low-paid labor. Law enforcement officials rarely investigate trafficking, and human rights groups say the police are often engaged in these and other crimes.
Islam is the official religion. Hindus, Christians, and other minorities worship freely but face societal discrimination. In June, a bomb explosion at a church killed 10 and wounded more than 20 worshippers. Widespread violence against Bangladesh's Hindu minority flared up after the October elections. BNP supporters reportedly attacked the Hindus because of their perceived support for the rival Awami League. Atrocities including murder, rape, destruction of property, and kidnapping forced hundreds of Hindus from their homes, and some crossed the border into India. In November, the supreme court ordered the government to explain its poor record of protection for Bangladeshi Hindus. There are also occasional reports of violence against members of the Ahmadiya religious minority.
The Garos and other tribal minorities have little input in land issues affecting them, and minority rights groups say that Bengalis have cheated many tribal people out of their land. A 1997 accord between the government and the CHT People's Solidarity Association ended a 24-year insurgency in the CHT that sought autonomy for the Chakmas and 12 other indigenous tribes, and killed 8,500 soldiers, rebels, and civilians. A February 2000 Amnesty International report said the government had not fully implemented some of the accord's main provisions, including the rehabilitation of refugees, return of land confiscated from tribal people, and withdrawal of nonpermanent army camps. During an outbreak of ethnic violence in June in which 50 people were injured, Bengali-speaking settlers set fire to the houses of Marma tribespeople, and there were reports that a small number of Marmas fled across the border to India.
Roughly 260,000 Rohingya refugees fleeing forced labor, discrimination, and other abuses in Burma entered Bangladesh in 1991 and 1992; some 20,000 Rohingya refugees and 100,000 other Rohingyas not documented as refugees remain in the country. Bangladesh also hosts some 300,000 Urdu-speaking Biharis, who were rendered stateless at independence in 1971 and seek repatriation to Pakistan.
According to the U.S. State Department, nongovernmental human rights organizations report that they face some harassment by government intelligence agents, ruling party activists, and Muslim religious leaders. Union formation is hampered by a 30 percent employee approval requirement and restrictions on organizing by unregistered unions. Employers can legally fire or transfer workers suspected of union activities. The law prohibits many civil servants from joining unions; these workers can form associations but are prohibited from bargaining collectively. The Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union is one of the few diligent, nonpartisan unions. UNICEF has reported that numerous children under age 14 are working in Bangladesh, mostly as maids, servants, farm workers, or rickshaw pullers. However, in October 2000 the International Labor Organization praised Bangladesh for drastically reducing the number of working children, to six million, or 5 percent of the workforce (down from 40 percent in 1995).
Aid donors frequently blame corruption, a weak rule of law, limited bureaucratic transparency, and political polarization for undermining economic development. In June, the international corruption watchdog Transparency International listed Bangladesh at the bottom of a 91-country list on its Corruption Perceptions Index.