Bangladesh | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Bangladesh's political rights rating declined from 3 to 4 due to changes in the survey methodology.


While the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) made some progress on economic reform after winning elections in October 2001, Bangladesh remained plagued by lawlessness, rampant corruption, and violent political polarization during 2002. The opposition Awami League used a parliamentary boycott and national strikes to impede the functioning of the BNP-led coalition. For its part, the government initiated a sweeping anticrime drive in October and appeared to grow increasingly intolerant of criticism as the year progressed. Leaders of the political opposition, foreign and domestic journalists, and human rights advocates were detained under national security legislation and some were subjected to torture and criminal charges.

With the partition of British India in 1947, what is now Bangladesh became the eastern part of the newly formed state of Pakistan. Bangladesh won independence in December 1971 after Indian troops helped defeat West Pakistani forces stationed in Bangladesh in a nine-month war. The 1975 assassination of Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman by soldiers precipitated 15 years of military rule and continues to polarize Bangladeshi politics. The country's democratic transition began with the resignation in 1990 of the last military ruler, General H.M. Ershad, after weeks of pro-democracy demonstrations. Elections in 1991 brought the BNP to power under Khaleda Zia.

The political strikes and parliamentary boycotts began in 1994, when Sheikh Hasina Wajed'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 Mujibur's 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, the Awami League won 146 of 300 parliamentary seats while the BNP won 113. Under Hasina, the government signed an accord ending a low-grade insurgency in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. An October 2000 World Bank report praised Bangladesh's economic growth, but noted that each one-day nationwide strike costs the economy $60 million. However, Hasina's government exacerbated political tensions in January 2000 by passing a controversial public order law. The opposition said the law could be used against its members and to break general strikes.

Political gridlock continued in 2001, as the opposition BNP boycotted parliament and organized several nationwide strikes. Ignoring the opposition's demand for early elections, Sheikh Hasina Wajed became the first prime minister to complete a full fiveyear term in office in June 2001. However, in October, the Awami League was voted out of office in elections marred by political violence and intimidation. A new four-party coalition, dominated by the BNP and also including two hardline Muslim parties, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islami Oikyo Jote, was sworn into power with a convincing majority of 214 of the 300 seats in parliament. Zia announced soon after taking office that her top priority would be to free Bangladesh from lawlessness and corruption.

The Awami League refused to accept the election results and boycotted parliament from October 2001 through June 2002. Reneging on a pledge she made during the election campaign, Hasina also organized several nationwide strikes during the year. Unexplained bomb blasts in crowded cinemas in September and December killed dozens and injured hundreds of people. Meanwhile, the government deployed nearly 40,000 army personnel in "Operation Clean Heart" in October as part of an anticrime drive during which thousands were arrested.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Bangladeshis can change their government through elections. A referendum held in 1991 transformed the powerful presidency into a largely ceremonial head-of-state position in a parliamentary system. 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. The October 2001 elections, which were monitored by more than 300,000 observers, were described as generally free and fair despite concerns over intimidation and violence. More than 140 people were killed throughout the campaign period in what was Bangladesh's most violent election to date.

Both major parties have undermined the legislative process through lengthy parliamentary boycotts while in opposition. In recent years, political violence during demonstrations and general strikes has killed hundreds of people in major cities and injured thousands, and police often use excessive force against opposition protesters. Student wings of political parties continue to be embroiled in violent campus conflicts. During the year, four municipal officials in Dhaka were murdered, allegedly because of their criminal links. Aid donors blame corruption, a weak rule of law, limited bureaucratic transparency, and political polarization for undermining government accountability and economic development. In August, Transparency International listed Bangladesh at the bottom of a 102-country list on its 2002 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Conditions for the press worsened in 2002. Although the print media are diverse, journalists face considerable pressure from organized-crime groups, political parties, the government, and Islamic fundamentalists, and they practice some self-censorship. A report published by Reporters Sans Frontieres in June alleged that Bangladesh had the highest incidence worldwide of violence against members of the press. A reporter was murdered in March, and journalists are frequently the targets of death threats and violent attacks. During the year, a number of journalists were detained by security forces after they reported on topics such as corruption, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and human rights abuses. Political considerations influence the distribution of government advertising revenue and subsidized newsprint, upon which most publications are dependent. The state owns most broadcast media, whose coverage favors the ruling party. Ekushey Television, the country's only independent broadcaster, was forced to close in August after the Supreme Court upheld the withdrawal of its license.

Islam is the official religion. Hindus, Christians, and other minorities worship freely but face societal discrimination and remain underrepresented in government employment. Violence against Bangladesh's Hindu minority flared up after the October 2001 elections, when BNP supporters reportedly attacked 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, some across the border into India. There are also occasional reports of violence against members of the Ahmadiya religious minority.

The constitution provides for freedom of assembly, but the government frequently limits this right in practice. According to the U.S. State Department human rights report for 2001, nongovernmental human rights organizations say they face some harassment by government intelligence agents, ruling party activists, and Muslim religious leaders. In March, two staff members of Proshika were arrested and detained, allegedly because they were in possession of documents relating to attacks against Hindus following the 2001 elections. Several universities were closed during the year following student protests and clashes between students and security forces.

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 U.S. Agency for International Development has reported that almost half of children aged 10 to 14 are working in Bangladesh, mostly as domestic servants, farm workers, or rickshaw pullers.

The Supreme Court is independent, but according to the U.S. State Department's report, 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. Prisoners are routinely subject to physical abuse and demands for bribes from corrupt law-enforcement officials. The Economist Intelligence Unit reported that of 480,097 people arrested between July 2001 and August 2002, 206,643 were not charged with any crime, which left the police considerable scope to abuse their powers. Amnesty International's 2002 annual report noted that authorities "appeared to ignore torture allegations" despite dozens of custodial deaths during the year. Police also routinely rape suspects and prisoners. The majority of police abuses go unpunished, which results in a climate of impunity. However, in June, 13 policemen were sentenced to life imprisonment for the torture and murder of a student in their custody in 1998. Prison conditions are extremely poor, and severe overcrowding is increasingly common.

Authorities continued to arbitrarily detain political opponents and ordinary citizens under the 1974 Special Powers Act and other national security legislation, and used serial detentions to prevent the release of political activists. Several hundred opposition activists were rounded up without arrest warrants in August, and some were reportedly subject to torture. According to a UNDP report on the criminal law system released in September, almost 90 percent of "preventative detention" cases that reach the courts are judged to be unlawful. Under Section 54 of the Criminal Procedure Code, individuals may be detained for suspicion of criminal activity without a warrant. As part of the government's anticrime drive launched in October, the army detained nearly 3,500 people, including members of both political parties. In a December press release, Amnesty International highlighted a pattern of politically motivated detentions throughout 2002, noting that senior opposition politicians, academics, journalists, and human rights activists critical of government policies were particularly at risk of prolonged detention and ill-treatment in custody. Amnesty International also raised concern about the deaths of at least 32 people in army custody between October and December.

Tribal minorities have little control over 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 Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) People's Solidarity Association ended a 24-year insurgency in the CHT that sought autonomy for indigenous tribes and killed 8,500 soldiers, rebels, and civilians. However, Amnesty International's annual report for 2001 noted that violent clashes between tribal inhabitants and Bengali settlers continued to be reported in the CHT.

Roughly 260,000 Rohingyas 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.

Rape, dowry-related assaults, acid throwing, and other violence against women occur frequently. According to the Acid Survivors Foundation, several hundred acid attacks are registered each year; the majority are carried out against women fleeing arranged marriages. A September 2000 UN 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. Women also face discrimination in health care, education, and employment, and are underrepresented in politics and government. As a result of parliamentary deadlocks, a provision that granted women 30 reserved seats in parliament was allowed to lapse in 2001. However, in December, an initial group of 20 women were commissioned as officers in Bangladesh's army.

Human rights activists estimate 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 rights groups allege the police are often engaged in these and other crimes.