Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Bangladesh received a downward trend arrow due to increased legal harassment and attacks on bloggers, the passage of restrictive amendments to the Information and Communication Technology Act, and the deaths of dozens of protesters during demonstrations over verdicts by the country’s war crimes tribunal.
Bangladesh was racked by ongoing political and social unrest in 2013, fueled by tensions between the ruling Awami League (AL) government and opposition parties in the run-up to national elections scheduled for January 2014, and between Islamist groups and secularist protesters. In addition to violence and killings surrounding street protests that took place throughout the year, restrictions were placed on both traditional and online media. Meanwhile, the collapse of a factory building in April, in which more than 1,100 workers died, highlighted unsafe working conditions in the garment industry.
The International Crimes Tribunal (ICT)—established by the AL government in 2010 to prosecute those suspected of committing war crimes or other atrocities against civilians during the 1971 war of independence—started handing down verdicts in early 2013. In February, the tribunal sentenced Abdul Quader Mollah, leader of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) political party, to life imprisonment. The sentencing triggered increased tensions between JI supporters and a coalition of nationalist and secularist forces, who led a series of large-scale peaceful protests termed the “Shahbagh movement” in the capital of Dhaka. The protesters demanded that convicted war criminals receive the death penalty. Violent clashes between the two factions erupted when the tribunal handed down a death sentence to JI vice president Delwar Hossain Sayedee in late February, leading to the death of dozens of protesters, mostly at the hands of security forces. In September, Mollah’s original life sentence was changed by the Supreme Court to the death penalty, prompting further protests by JI supporters; he was executed in December.
Political Rights: 24 / 40 (-1) [Key]
A. Electoral Process: 9 / 12
Terms for both the unicameral National Parliament and the largely ceremonial presidency are five years. Under provisions contained in the 15th amendment to the constitution, Parliament is composed of 350 members, of whom 300 are directly elected, and 50 are women nominated by political parties—based on their share of the elected seats—and then voted on by their fellow lawmakers. The president is elected by Parliament.
In national elections held in December 2008, an electoral alliance led by the AL won an overwhelming 263 seats, with the AL taking 230. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) took 30 seats, and its ally, JI, took 2. Independents and minor parties captured the remainder. While the 2008 elections were deemed free and fair by European Union observers and other monitoring groups, more recent local government polls have been marred by more extensive violence and intimidation, as well as suspected rigging.
The BNP boycotted participation in subnational elections in 2013 to demand the reinstatement of the Caretaker Government (CG) system, which had been eliminated in 2011. Under the CG system, a theoretically nonpartisan government would take power temporarily to oversee parliamentary voting.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 10 / 16 (-1)
Bangladesh has a strong two-party system in which power alternates regularly between political coalitions led by the AL and BNP. The BNP-led opposition continued in 2013 to intermittently boycott Parliament and rigidly oppose the AL government’s initiatives, making regular use of hartals (strikes) and mass protests.
The level of political violence in Bangladesh remains relatively high, and increased in the lead-up to national elections planned for January 2014; the human rights group Odhikar registered more than 500 deaths and more than 24,000 people injured as a result of inter- or intraparty clashes during 2013, a substantial uptick from the previous year.
Harassment of the opposition was widespread in 2013, ranging from charges filed against senior BNP members to limitations placed on political activities, particularly rallies and processions. In March 2013, following a BNP rally that turned violent, nearly 200 opposition activists were arrested, including BNP acting secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir. Of those detained, 154 faced charges, including several top leaders.
Members of the JI also faced pressure in 2013; police raided the party’s headquarters in Dhaka following violent protests it organized countrywide in response to the Shahbagh protests calling for the death penalty for war criminals. A February 2010 Supreme Court decision effectively reinstated a ban on religious political parties. In August 2013, a high court ruled that the JI would be required to amend its charter to conform to the constitution and reregister in order to contest the 2014 national elections.
The military does not generally play a dominant role in politics.
C. Functioning of Government: 5 / 12
Endemic corruption and criminality, weak rule of law, limited bureaucratic transparency, and political polarization have long undermined government accountability. Moreover, regular opposition boycotts of Parliament have significantly hampered the legislature’s role in providing thorough scrutiny of government policies, budgets, and proposed legislation. The 2009 Right to Information Act mandates public access to all information held by public bodies and overrides secrecy legislation, but has been unevenly implemented.
Bangladesh was ranked 144 out of 177 countries and territories surveyed by Transparency International in its 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index. Under the present government, anticorruption efforts have been weakened by patchy or biased enforcement and subversion of the judicial process. In particular, the Anticorruption Commission (ACC) has become ineffective and subject to overt political interference. Its powers were weakened further in November 2013, when the ACC law was amended to withdraw its authority to bring cases against officials without permission from the government. Meanwhile, dozens of pre-2009 cases against Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed and other AL politicians were dropped after the AL assumed power, while those against BNP politicians, including party leader Khaleda Zia and her family, have remained open, and additional charges have been filed by the AL government.
Civil Liberties: 29 / 60 (-2)
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 8 / 16 (-1)
Bangladesh’s media environment remained relatively unfettered in 2013, though the legal and regulatory framework allows for some restrictions, and the government showed signs of intolerance during the year. In April, Mahmudur Rahman, the editor of the opposition-oriented Amar Desh newspaper, was arrested and charged with sedition. Print media are generally given more leeway than broadcasters when covering sensitive topics. In May 2013, several television stations were shuttered by authorities as they attempted to cover unfolding protests in Dhaka.
Journalists continue to be threatened and attacked with impunity by organized crime groups, party activists, and Islamist factions, which sometimes leads to self-censorship on sensitive topics. One journalist—a blogger associated with the Shahbagh movement—was killed in 2013, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. On a number of occasions during the year, journalists were harassed or attacked while trying to cover the protests engulfing the country. Some journalists received threatening telephone calls from intelligence agencies seeking to prevent negative coverage.
Attempts to censor internet-based content increased in 2013. The video-sharing site YouTube remained blocked until June following a global uproar over a 2012 anti-Islam video produced in the United States. Facebook and some individual blogs were also blocked for shorter periods during the year, allegedly due to carrying antireligious content. In March 2013, an official committee was formed to monitor blogs and social media and to identify individuals who produced or posted anti-Islamic content. Bloggers faced increased physical attacks and legal charges in 2013, with many accused of blasphemy; several were arrested in April. Amendments to the Information and Communication Technology Act that passed in October would expand police powers and increase the penalties for violations; activists criticized the broad provisions and vowed to challenge the law’s constitutionality. Various forms of artistic expression, including books and films, are occasionally banned or censored.
A 2011 amendment to the constitution confirmed Islam as the official religion, but also reaffirmed the secular nature of the state. Muslims form an overwhelming majority; about 10 percent of the population is Hindu, and there are smaller numbers of Buddhists and Christians. Although religious minorities have the right to worship freely, they face societal discrimination as well as harassment and legal repercussions for proselytizing, and physical attacks occasionally target minority groups and their houses of worship.
Religious minorities remain underrepresented in politics and state employment, but the secularist AL government has appointed several members of such groups to leadership positions. It has also initiated curriculum reform in Islamic schools. The government rejected demands by Islamist parties during the year to implement a new blasphemy law.
In early 2013, attacks against Hindus and Buddhists took place across Bangladesh as part of the violent protests organized by Islamists against the war crimes verdicts, affecting hundreds of homes, businesses, and temples. Members of the Ahmadiyya sect are considered heretical by some Muslims, and despite increased state protection since 2009, they have encountered physical attacks, boycotts, and demands that the state declare them non-Muslims. They are also occasionally denied permission to hold religious events.
While authorities largely respect academic freedom, research on sensitive political and religious topics is reportedly discouraged. Political polarization at many universities, including occasional clashes involving the armed student wings of the three main parties, inhibits education and access to services.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 6 / 12 (-1)
The rights of assembly and association are provided for in the constitution, but the government is empowered to ban gatherings of more than four people, and it regularly exercised this provision in 2013. Nevertheless, many demonstrations took place during the year, including strikes and rallies called by the BNP, as well as protests both in favor of and opposing the war crimes trials. Authorities sometimes try to prevent rallies by arresting party activists, and protesters are frequently injured and occasionally killed during clashes in which police use excessive force. Dozens of pro-JI protesters were killed early in the year, while in May, several dozen activists belonging to the Hefazat-i-Islami religious group were killed by security forces in Dhaka following a day-long protest rally.
Numerous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate in Bangladesh. While most are able to function without onerous restrictions, they must obtain clearance from the NGO Affairs Bureau (NAB)—which reports to the prime minister’s office—to use foreign funds. The bureau is also empowered to approve or reject individual projects after a review period of 45 days. Groups such as Odhikar that are seen as overly critical of the government, particularly on human rights issues, have been subject to harassment and surveillance of staff and are regularly denied permission for proposed projects. In August 2013, Odhikar secretary Adilur Rahman Khan was arrested for allegedly spreading false information after he criticized extrajudicial killings by the security forces; he spent two months in detention before being released on bail. The government announced plans in 2013 to bring the Grameen Bank, a key nonprofit and one of the country’s largest and most influential microfinance institutions, under the direct control of the central bank.
Labor union formation is hampered by a 30 percent employee-approval requirement, restrictions on organizing by unregistered unions, and rules against unionization by certain categories of civil servants. Organizations and individuals that advocate for labor rights have faced increased harassment over the past several years. The Bangladesh Center for Workers’ Solidarity (BCWS) was stripped of its legal status by the NAB in 2010 for allegedly inciting labor unrest; although criminal charges were dropped against its leaders in 2013, little substantive progress was made on investigating the April 2012 murder of BCWS organizer Aminul Islam, despite evidence that security forces were complicit in his death.
F. Rule of Law: 6 / 16
Politicization of the judiciary remains an issue, despite a 1999 Supreme Court directive ordering the separation of the judiciary from the executive. Political authorities have continued to make appointments to the higher judiciary, in some cases demonstrating an overt political bias, leading to protests from the Supreme Court Bar Association. Harassment of witnesses and the dismissal of cases following political pressure are also growing issues of concern.
The court system is prone to corruption and severely backlogged with an estimated two million pending cases. Pretrial detention is often lengthy, and many defendants lack counsel. The indigent have little access to justice through the courts. Prison conditions are extremely poor, severe overcrowding is common, and juveniles are often incarcerated with adults. Suspects are routinely subject to arbitrary arrest and detention, demands for bribes, and physical abuse by police. Torture is often used to extract confessions and intimidate political detainees. Criminal cases against ruling party activists are regularly withdrawn on the grounds of “political consideration,” which has undermined the judicial process and entrenched a culture of impunity.
Security forces including the Rapid Action Battalion, a paramilitary unit composed of military and police personnel, have been criticized for extrajudicial executions. According to Odhikar, there were 329 extrajudicial killings by law enforcement agencies in 2013, a dramatic increase from the previous year; most were committed by the police. The Directorate General–Forces Intelligence, a military intelligence unit, has been responsible for a number of cases of abuse during interrogations. Although the AL government initially promised a “zero-tolerance” approach on torture and extrajudicial executions, high-level officials routinely excuse or deny the practices, and the rate of custodial deaths has increased since the AL took office. Abductions and enforced disappearances are also a growing concern, according to the International Crisis Group and other organizations, with several dozen cases recorded in 2013. In a positive step, a law criminalizing custodial torture or death—with mandated minimum fines for perpetrators—was passed by Parliament in October 2013.
Law enforcement abuses are facilitated by legislation such as the 1974 Special Powers Act, which permits arbitrary detention without charge, and Section 54 of the criminal procedure code, which allows detention without a warrant. A 2009 counterterrorism law includes an overly broad definition of terrorism and generally does not meet international standards; a June 2013 amendment to the law allowed the use of materials posted on social media as evidence in cases. The National Human Rights Commission, reestablished in 2010, is empowered to investigate and rule on complaints against the armed forces and security services, and it can request reports from the government at its own discretion.
Revisions in 2009 and 2011 to the International War Crimes Tribunal Act of 1973 and the current tribunal’s procedural rules were intended to help meet international standards on issues such as victim and witness protection, the presumption of innocence, defendant access to counsel, and the right to bail. However, the trials conducted thus far have fallen short of these standards, with concerns raised regarding political interference, due process shortcomings, and inadequate protection given to witnesses and defense lawyers. During the year, the ICT handed down a number of sentences, with most defendants receiving the death penalty. Abdul Quader Mollah was executed in December, prompting fears of increased instability. Following the Shahbagh protests, the law governing the tribunal was amended in February 2013 to allow prosecutors as well as the defense to appeal sentences.
Violence by nonstate actors remains a concern. Protests by Islamist political parties and other pressure groups—some of which involved violence—were a key feature of 2013, though terrorist attacks by Islamist militant groups have been negligible since a 2006 crackdown, and the AL government has been aggressive in arresting cadres and closely monitoring their activities. Separately, casualties from clashes involving Maoist militants have declined dramatically in recent years; according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, just 18 people were killed in 2013.
Members of ethnic and religious minority groups, women, and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) individuals face some discrimination under law, as well as harassment and violations of their rights in practice. Indigenous people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) remain subject to physical attacks and property destruction by Bengali settlers, as well as occasional abuses by security forces. Roughly 230,000 ethnic Rohingyas who fled forced labor, discrimination, and other abuses in Burma in the early 1990s remain in Bangladesh and are subject to some harassment. In June 2012, authorities began turning away Rohingya and other refugees seeking to escape new outbreaks of ethnic and sectarian violence in Burma, and in August officials suspended the activities of international aid organizations providing humanitarian assistance to the refugees, claiming that such aid was encouraging further influxes. However, refugees continued to cross over the Burma-Bangladesh border in 2013.
A criminal ban on homosexual acts is rarely enforced, but societal discrimination remains the norm, and dozens of attacks on LGBT individuals are reported every year. Transgender people face persecution, though government-supported projects have recently attempted to integrate this group into mainstream society. In November 2013, the government announced that it would officially consider transgender people to be a separate, third gender.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 9 / 16
The ability to move within the country is relatively free, as is foreign travel, with the exception of travel to Israel, which is not permitted.
Land rights for the Hindu minority remain tenuous. The 2011 Vested Properties Return Act allows Hindus to reclaim land that was seized from them by the government or other individuals. However, human rights groups have critiqued the government for its slow implementation of the law. Tribal minorities have little control over land decisions affecting them, and Bengali-speaking settlers continue to illegally encroach on tribal lands in the CHT. In 2009 the AL government announced plans to set up a commission that would allocate land to indigenous tribes, but the panel’s activities have suffered from delays and interruptions, and it has not addressed land disputes effectively.
Property rights are unevenly enforced, and the ability to engage freely in private economic activity is somewhat constrained. Business activities throughout the country are hindered by corruption and bribery, inadequate infrastructure, and official bureaucracy and regulatory hurdles, according to the Global Competitiveness Report. State involvement and interference in the economy is considerable.
Child labor is widespread. Worker grievances fuel unrest at factories, particularly in the rapidly expanding and lucrative garment industry, where strikes and protests against low wages and unsafe working conditions are common. In April 2013, more than 1,100 workers were killed when a factory building collapsed on the outskirts of Dhaka, prompting some foreign companies to cease sourcing production in the country and others to push for improved working conditions. However, reforms of the system are hampered by the fact that a growing number of factory owners are also members of Parliament or owners of influential media outlets.
Under the personal status laws affecting all religious communities, women have fewer marriage, divorce, and inheritance rights than men, which increases their socioeconomic insecurity, according to a September 2012 Human Rights Watch report. However, Parliament that month passed the Hindu Marriage Bill, which aims to grant legal and social protection to members of the Hindu community, particularly women. In rural areas, religious leaders sometimes impose flogging and other extrajudicial punishments on women accused of violating strict moral codes, despite Supreme Court orders calling on the government to stop such practices. Women also face discrimination in health care, education, and employment. In 2013, Islamic clergy and women’s groups remained at loggerheads over implementation of the National Women Development Policy, which holds that women and men should have equal political, social, and economic rights.
Rape, dowry-related assaults, acid throwing, and other forms of violence against women occur regularly. 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. Police also accept bribes to quash rape cases and rarely enforce existing laws protecting women. The Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF), a local NGO, recorded 69 acid attacks during 2013; they affected 85 victims, most of them women. While attacks have declined since the passage of the Acid Crime Prevention Act in 2002, investigations remain inadequate. A 2010 law offers greater protection to women and children from domestic violence, including both physical and mental abuse. Giving or receiving dowry is a criminal offense, but coercive requests remain a problem, as does the country’s high rate of early marriage. Odhikar noted a decrease in dowry-related violence against women in 2013, with around 150 murders recorded during the year.
Women and children are trafficked both overseas and within the country for the purposes of domestic servitude or sexual exploitation, while men are trafficked primarily for labor abroad. The government has taken steps to raise awareness and prosecute sex traffickers somewhat more vigorously, with dozens convicted each year and some sentenced to life in prison. A comprehensive antitrafficking law, passed by Parliament in 2012 and finally approved by the cabinet in August 2013, would provide further protection to male as well as female victims, and increased penalties for traffickers.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year