Bangladesh’s constitution provides for a parliamentary form of government, but in fact, most power resides in the Office of the Prime Minister. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party won a third consecutive five-year term in an improbably lopsided December parliamentary election that was not considered free and fair, and was marred by reported irregularities, including ballot-box stuffing and intimidation of opposition polling agents and voters. During the campaign leading up to the election, there were credible reports of harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, and violence that made it difficult for many opposition candidates and their supporters to meet, hold rallies, and campaign freely. International election monitors were not issued accreditation and visas within the timeframe necessary to conduct a credible international monitoring mission, and only seven of the 22 Election Working Group NGOs were approved to conduct domestic election observation.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Human rights issues included unlawful or arbitrary killings; forced disappearance; torture; arbitrary or unlawful detentions by the government or on its behalf; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, such as overly restrictive nongovernmental organizations (NGO) laws and restrictions on the activities of NGOs; significant restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation, where elections have not been found to be genuine, free, or fair; corruption; trafficking in persons; violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons and criminalization of same-sex sexual activity; restrictions on independent trade unions, workers’ rights, and use of the worst forms of child labor.
There were reports of widespread impunity for security force abuses. The government took few measures to investigate and prosecute cases of abuse and killing by security forces.
The United Nations reported three allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse against peacekeepers from Bangladesh in 2017; the allegations remained pending.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but the Special Powers Act of 1974 permits authorities to arrest and detain an individual without an order from a magistrate or a warrant if authorities perceive the individual may constitute a threat to security and public order. The act was widely cited by law enforcement in justifying their arrests. The constitution provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, but the government did not generally observe these requirements. Media, civil society, and human rights organizations accused the government of conducting enforced disappearances not only against suspected militants but also against civil society and opposition party members. Authorities sometimes held detainees without divulging their whereabouts or circumstances to family or legal counsel, or without acknowledging having arrested them.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The Bangladesh Police, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Home Affairs, has a mandate to maintain internal security and law and order. Numerous units of the Bangladesh Police operate under competing mandates. The most significant among such units are the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit (CTTCU), the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB)–a mostly counterterrorism-focused Special Mission Unit–and the Detective Branch (DB).
The military, which reports directly to the prime minister (who also holds the title of minister of defense), is responsible for external security. The military may also be “activated” as a backup force with a variety of domestic security responsibilities when required to aid civilian authorities. This includes responding to instances of terrorism.
The Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) and National Security Intelligence (NSI) are the two primary intelligence agencies with overlapping responsibilities and capabilities. Both are responsible for domestic as well as foreign affairs and report directly to the prime minister in her capacity as minister of defense. Media reports asserted that the DGFI and, to a lesser degree, the NSI engaged in politically motivated violations of human rights. This included violations against suspected terrorists, members of opposition parties, civil society, and others.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the military and other security forces. While the government has mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption within the security forces, these mechanisms were not regularly employed. The government continued to take steps to improve police professionalism, discipline, training, and responsiveness–and to reduce corruption. Police basic training continued to incorporate instruction on the appropriate use of force as part of efforts to implement community-based policing.
According to police policy, all significant uses of force by police, including actions that resulted in serious physical injury or death, triggered an automatic internal investigation, usually by a professional standards unit that reports directly to the Inspector General of Police. The government neither released statistics on total killings by security personnel nor took comprehensive measures to investigate cases. Human rights groups expressed skepticism over the independence of the professional standards units conducting these assessments. In the few known instances in which the government brought charges, those found guilty generally received only administrative punishment.
Security forces continued to commit abuses with impunity. Plaintiffs were reluctant to accuse police in criminal cases due to lengthy trial procedures and fear of retribution. Reluctance to bring charges against police also perpetuated a climate of impunity. Officers with political ties to the ruling party occupied many of the key positions in the law enforcement agencies.
The government continued support of the Internal Enquiry Cell that investigates cases of human rights abuses within the RAB, which did not widely publish its findings and did not otherwise announce significant actions against officers accused of human rights abuses.
Security forces failed to prevent societal violence (see section 6).
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
The constitution requires arrests and detentions be authorized by a warrant or occur as a result of observation of a crime in progress, but the Special Powers Act of 1974 grants broad exceptions to these protections.
Under the constitution detainees must be brought before a judicial officer to face charges within 24 hours, but this provision was not regularly enforced. The government or a district magistrate may order a person detained for 30 days to prevent the commission of an act that could threaten national security; however, authorities sometimes held detainees for longer periods with impunity.
There is a functioning bail system, but law enforcement routinely rearrested bailed individuals on other charges, despite a 2016 directive from the Supreme Court’s Appellate Division prohibiting rearrest of persons when they are released on bail in new cases without producing them in court.
Authorities generally permitted defense lawyers to meet with their clients only after formal charges were filed in the courts, which in some cases occurred weeks or months after the initial arrest. Detainees are legally entitled to counsel even if they cannot afford to pay for it, but the country lacked sufficient funds to provide for this entitlement.
Arbitrary Arrest: Arbitrary arrests occurred, often in conjunction with political demonstrations or as part of security force responses to terrorist activity, and the government held persons in detention without specific charges, sometimes in an attempt to collect information about other suspects. The expansiveness of the 1974 Special Powers Act grants a legal justification to arrests that would often otherwise be considered arbitrary, since it removes the requirement that arrests be based on crimes that have previously occurred. This year experienced a significant increase in arrests of opposition party activists. According to figures provided to the Dhaka Tribune by the BNP, 434,975 criminal charges in 4,429 cases were lodged against BNP members from September 1 through November 14. Law enforcement also arrested at least 100 students, most of whom participated peacefully in the quota reform and road safety protest movements.
On September 5, DB officers in Dhaka arrested numerous students from their student residences late at night, allegedly for their roles in the road safety protests in July and August. While authorities later released some of the students, 12 of the students were kept in custody for days before being brought before a judge. Human rights activists criticized the DB for its initial denial of the arrests and failure to produce them before the court within 24 hours of arrest, as mandated by the law. Some of the students released by DB alleged physical abuse during their informal detention.
In a September 11 article, the Daily Star newspaper published a listed of allegedly false criminal charges by police against opposition party BNP activists. The list included charges against an 82-year bedridden man in a hospital, a person who was abroad on the day of the alleged incident, and an individual who died approximately two years before the alleged crime. On November 7, the BNP submitted to the Prime Minister’s Office what it claimed to be a partial list of 1,046 “fictitious cases” filed against its leaders and activists.
Police routinely detained opposition activists in their homes, in public places, or when commuting to and from their respective parties’ events. On September 10, multiple newspapers reported police in Dhaka apprehended dozens of BNP supporters as they were returning home after participating in a peaceful human chain in front of the National Press Club to demand the release of incarcerated party chair Khaleda Zia.
Pretrial Detention: Arbitrary and lengthy pretrial detention continued due to bureaucratic inefficiencies, limited resources, lax enforcement of pretrial rules, and corruption. In some cases the length of pretrial detention equaled or exceeded the sentence for the alleged crime.
In July, Hasnat Karim, a UK citizen detained without charges and denied bail for more than two years as part of the investigation into the 2016 Holey Bakery Attack that killed more than 20 persons, was released. Law enforcement authorities decided not to charge Karim, due to a lack of evidence against him.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Pursuant to the Special Powers Act, a magistrate must inform a detainee of grounds for detention within 15 days. Regulations require an advisory board, appointed by the government, to examine each case of detention that lasts longer than four months. Detainees have the right to appeal.
Judicial vacancies hampered legal challenges to cases of detention. In 2017 The Daily Star reported delays in the recruitment of judges were hampering judicial proceedings and leading to a substantial case backlog. The article noted approximately 400 lower court judgeships, including 50 district judgeships, remained vacant. On January 16, the Law, Justice, and Parliamentary Affairs Minister reported to parliament that 3,309,789 cases were pending with the court system on the last day of 2017.
On May 31, the president appointed 18 additional judges to the High Court division of the Supreme Court, raising the number of High Court Judges to 98. As of September the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court had appointed four judges on an 11-member bench.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government sometimes failed to respect this right. There were significant limitations on freedom of speech. Some journalists self-censored their criticisms of the government due to harassment and fear of reprisal.
Freedom of Expression: The constitution equates criticism of the constitution with sedition. Punishment for sedition ranges from three years’ to life imprisonment.
The law limits hate speech but does not define clearly what constitutes hate speech, which permits the government broad powers of interpretation. The government may restrict speech deemed to be against the security of the state; against friendly relations with foreign states; and against public order, decency, or morality; or that constitutes contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to an offense. The Foreign Donation Act criminalizes any criticism of constitutional bodies. The 2006 Information and Communication Technology Act (ICTA) references defamation of individuals and organizations and was used to prosecute opposition figures and civil society.
As of November, Khaleda Zia had secured bail in 34 of 36 cases against her on issues such as corruption, violence, and sedition. She remained in prison because she had not received bail in two other pending cases.
Press and Media Freedom: Both print and online independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views; however, media outlets that criticized the government experienced negative government pressure.
The government maintained editorial control over the Bangladesh public television station and mandated private channels broadcast government content at no charge. Civil society said political interference influenced the licensing process, since all television channel licenses granted by the government were for stations supporting the ruling party.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities, including intelligence services on some occasions, and student affiliates of the ruling party, subjected journalists to physical attack, harassment, and intimidation, especially during the August student road safety protests.
On July 22, editor of Amar Desh, Mahmudur Rahman, was physically assaulted following court proceedings in a defamation case regarding his comments about the prime minister and her niece. A recording of the incident shows police standing by while Mahmudur was attacked. An investigation had not taken place by the end of the year.
According to BDnews24.com, on August 4, a group of approximately 12 journalists, including Associated Press photojournalist AM Ahad, was attacked by unidentified individuals near Dhaka City College while covering student traffic safety protests. AM Ahad suffered severe injuries to his legs, and attackers also broke his camera. The information minister requested an investigation into the attack.
Reporters without Borders (RSF) reported 23 journalists, including Shahidul Alam, were attacked while reporting on student traffic safety protests on August 5. In a Skype interview with al-Jazeera on August 4, Alam discussed the student protests and subsequently described attacks on the student protestors on his personal Facebook page. The next day Alam was arrested for making “provocative comments.” When Alam was brought to the court on August 6, he appeared unable to walk unassisted and showed visible signs of injury (see section 1.c.) Alam was charged under the ICTA, which criminalize the publication of material that “tends to deprave and corrupt” its audience, causes a “deterioration in law and order,” or “prejudices the image of the state or a person.” After multiple bail hearing postponements, the High Court granted Alam bail, and he was released on November 20. The government filed an appeal of the bail order. Alam’s trail proceedings recommenced on December 11, but they were subsequently postponed to 2019. Domestic and international NGOs consider the case against Alam to be politically motivated.
A top Dhaka Metropolitan Police official reported the government gathered details on approximately 100 social media accounts, which they claimed incited violence during student traffic safety protests by spreading provocative content. It was difficult to obtain reliable counts on the total number of those arrested, detained, released, or disappeared in conjunction with either the April through May quota protests or the August student traffic safety protests. Reports varied in the media. Families of the detained held press conferences to encourage the government to acknowledge their family members were being held in custody.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Independent journalists alleged intelligence services influenced media outlets in part by withholding financially important government advertising and pressing private companies to withhold their advertising as well. RSF alleged media self-censorship is growing due to “endemic violence” against journalists and media outlets, and the “almost systematic impunity enjoyed by those responsible.”
Privately owned newspapers, however, usually enjoyed freedom to carry diverse views. Political polarization and self-censorship remained a problem.
In September parliament passed the Digital Security Act (DSA), claiming it was intended to reduce cybercrimes. Human rights groups, journalists, media outlets, and political opposition parties denounced the DSA as intended to suppress freedom and criminalize free speech. The DSA provides for sentences of up to 10 years imprisonment for spreading “propaganda” against the Bangladesh Liberation War, the national anthem, or the national flag. Human rights organizations criticized the DSA as restricting freedom of expression.
The government penalized media that criticized the government or broadcast the opposition’s activities and statements. During the August student traffic protests, the government blocked internet connections to limit the ability of the protesters to organize. Television stations reported that they were “asked” by government officials not to broadcast reports of the students on the streets.
According to some journalists and human rights NGOs, journalists engaged in self-censorship, due to fear of security force retribution and the possibility of being charged with politically motivated cases. Although public criticism of the government was common and vocal, some media figures expressed fear of harassment by the government.
Some international media outlets reported delays and difficulties in obtaining visas. A government-managed film censorship board reviewed local and foreign films and had the authority to censor or ban films on the grounds of state security, law and order, religious sentiment, obscenity, foreign relations, defamation, or plagiarism, but it was less strict than in the past.
Nongovernmental Impact: Atheist, secular, and LGBTI writers and bloggers reported they continued to receive death threats from violent extremist organizations. In May a LGBTI rights activist expressed fear about organizing the LGBTI community in the country, as formal organization would require the disclosure to the government of LGBTI activists’ identities, making them potential targets for government monitoring and harassment.
The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet and censored online content in isolated incidents. The government prohibited Virtual Private Networks and Voice Over Internet Protocol telephone but rarely enforced this prohibition.
In several incidents the government interfered in internet communications, filtered or blocked access, restricted content, and censored websites or other communications and internet services. It suspended or closed many websites based on vague criteria, or with explicit reference to their pro-opposition content being in violation of legal requirements.
The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) is charged with the regulation of telecommunications. It carries out law enforcement and government requests to block content by ordering internet service providers to take action. The BTRC filtered internet content the government deemed harmful to national unity and religious beliefs. In 2016 the BTRC carried out a directive to block 35 news websites that had published material critical of the government and political leaders who were perceived to feature overt support for political opposition groups. Many of the sites remained blocked.
The ICTA criminalizes the posting online of inflammatory or derogatory information against the state or individuals. Opponents of the law said it unconstitutionally restricted freedom of speech. The government used the ICTA and threat of sedition charges, which carry a possible death penalty, to limit online activity and curtail freedom of expression online. The Digital Security Act (DSA) was passed on September 19. Telecommunications and Information Technology Minister Mustafa Jabbar said on September 15 that section 57 of the ICTA would be removed by the passage of the bill; however, much of section 57 was incorporated into the final DSA law.
According to nongovernmental organization Article 19, the government arrested at least 87 individuals under section 57 of the ICTA from January to August. According to Odhikar, in August, 22 individuals were charged under the ICTA for allegedly providing “false” information or “spreading rumors” deemed to be against the state through Facebook and social media during the road safety protest movement.
On June 18, the bdnews24 website was blocked for several hours by the BTRC without an official explanation. According to independent journalists, a report written by the media outlet contained a paragraph about the offer of presidential clemency and release from prison of the brother of the recently appointed army chief. The paragraph was removed and the newspaper portal later unblocked.
The BTRC blocked the Daily Star’s website on June 2, following a June 1 article reporting on extrajudicial killing in Cox’s Bazar. On December 9, the BTRC also blocked 58 various news portals’ websites affiliated with political opposition parties (see section 1.a.).
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) reported in 2017 that approximately 18 percent of the population uses the internet. The BTRC reported approximately 90 million internet subscriptions in September, including an estimated 85 million mobile internet subscriptions (one individual may have more than one subscription).
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
Although the government placed few restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, authorities discouraged research on sensitive religious and political topics that might fuel possible religious or communal tensions. Academic publications on the 1971 independence war were also subject to scrutiny and government approval.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government limited or restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The law provided for the right to peaceful assembly, but the government limited this right. The law gives the government broad discretion to ban assemblies of more than four persons. A Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) order requires advance permission for gatherings such as protests and demonstrations in Dhaka.
According to human rights NGOs, authorities continued to use approval provisions to disallow gatherings by opposition groups. Occasionally, police or ruling party activists used force to disperse demonstrations.
Throughout the year the BNP was hindered by the government from hosting assemblies and rallies. The BNP was denied applications “for security reasons” to hold rallies in Dhaka on March 11, 19, and 29 at the Suhrawardy Udyan, one of the few large places designated for political rallies, but it was ultimately permitted to host its rally at a different location.
In a separate instance, the BNP claimed it received verbal permission to conduct a rally on its founding anniversary on September 1 in Dhaka and to conduct a human chain in front of the National Press Club on September 10. Law enforcement officials, however, apprehended hundreds of participants in the two BNP events. The BNP reported law enforcement detained 304 leaders and activists in the first three days of September and approximately 200 leaders and activists during the party’s human chain later in the month. The assistant inspector general of police headquarters denied reports of raids to detain opposition activists.
The incumbent Awami League (AL) and its allies were allowed to hold rallies at Suhrawardy Udyan and other venues of their choice throughout the year.
On September 15, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said she would instruct the DMP commissioner to allow political parties to hold rallies at Suhrawardy Udyan. According to Prothom Alo, on September 29, the DMP gave permission to the BNP to hold rallies at Suhrawardy Udyan, under 22 conditions, including that they provide their own security and install closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras at the venue. The DMP also “banned all activities that can hamper public safety; carrying sticks; speech hurting religious sentiments, and arriving at the venue in processions.”
During the year police used force to disperse peaceful demonstrations. According to the Daily Star, on March 14, police dispersed a group of approximately 1,000 protesters marching towards the secretariat building in Dhaka, using batons and tear gas and injuring 15 protesters. The protesters were scheduled to arrive at a prescheduled sit-in at the secretariat. After the violent dispersal occurred, a DMP spokesperson defended the government’s actions on the grounds the protesters were obstructing traffic.
Beyond formal government hindrance and police obstruction of peaceful demonstrations, there were reports the government deployed ruling party student activists to areas where peaceful assemblies took place. On August 4, alleged Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) activists attacked a group of students in Dhanmondi with batons, rocks, and pistols in an effort to quell road safety protests. The action resulted in a reported 150 injuries. Multiple news outlets reported police did not try to prevent or restrain the attackers. Police detained dozens of students and supporters publicly supporting the road safety protestors.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The law provides for the right of citizens to form associations, subject to “reasonable restrictions” in the interest of morality or public order, and the government generally respected this right. The government’s NGO Affairs Bureau sometimes withheld its approval for foreign funding to NGOs working in areas the bureau deemed sensitive, such as human rights, labor rights, indigenous rights, or humanitarian assistance to Rohingya refugees (see sections 2.d., 5., and 7.a.).
The 2016 Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act places restrictions on the receipt of foreign funds by NGOs or government officials and provides for punishment of NGOs making any “derogatory” comments regarding the constitution or constitutional institutions (see section 5). The government announced in October 2017 a number of NGOs were no longer allowed to operate in Cox’s Bazar, including Muslim Aid Bangladesh, Islamic Relief, and Allama Fazlullah Foundation. The three organizations remain barred from operating in Cox’s Bazar during the year, according to media reports.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party won a third consecutive five-year term in an improbably lopsided December parliamentary election that was not considered free, fair, and credible and was marred by irregularities, including ballot-box stuffing and intimidation of opposition polling agents and voters. With more than 80 percent of the vote, the AL and its electoral allies won 288 of 300 directly elected seats, while the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies won only seven. During the campaign leading to the election, there were credible reports of harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, and violence that made it difficult for many opposition candidates and their supporters to meet, hold rallies, and campaign freely. According to data assembled by the NGO Democracy International, there were 1,324 acts of violence against the opposition BNP and its political allies and 211 acts of violence against the ruling AL and its allies during the month prior to the election.
The government did not grant credentials and issue visas within the timeframe necessary to conduct a credible international monitoring mission to the majority of international election monitors from the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL). ANFREL issued a statement on December 23 noting that as of December 21, the government granted accreditation to 13 of 32 applications submitted, and due to significant delays in the accreditation approval by the EC and the ministries of Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs, it was forced to terminate its observation mission on December 22. Only seven of the 22 Election Working Group NGOs were approved by the Home Ministry, NGO Affairs Bureau, and the EC to conduct domestic election observation.
City elections held during the year in Khulna, Gazipur, Barisal, Rajshahi, and Sylhet were similarly characterized by credible reports of harassment, arrests, intimidation, and violence against opposition candidates and their supporters, as well as election-day rigging, fraud, and irregularities. The ruling AL party won four of the five elections and narrowly lost the contest in Sylhet to the BNP.
Political Parties and Political Participation: The government mobilized law enforcement resources to level civil and criminal charges against opposition party leaders. BNP leader Khaleda Zia was convicted and imprisoned on February 8 based on corruption charges filed under a nonpartisan caretaker government in 2008. She was unable to take advantage of bail awarded in this case pending appeal because of more than two dozen other charges filed against her in recent years by the government. Police implicated approximately 435,000 BNP members in criminal charges in the run-up to the national election and detained many of the accused. Human rights observers claimed many of these charges were politically motivated.
The 86 criminal charges filed by the government against BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir in the previous years remained unresolved. Alamgir remained free on bail. The charges involved attacks on police, burning buses, and throwing bombs. Other opposition activists faced criminal charges. Jamaat leaders and members could not exercise their constitutional freedoms of speech and assembly because of harassment by law enforcement. Although Jamaat has been deregistered as a political party by the government, prohibiting candidates from seeking office under the Jamaat name, the fundamental constitutional rights of speech and assembly of its leaders and members continued to be violated. Media outlets deemed critical of the government and the AL were subjected to government intimidation and cuts in advertising revenue, and they practiced some self-censorship to avoid adverse responses from the government. AL-affiliated organizations (such as the BCL student wing) reportedly carried out violence and intimidation around the country with impunity, including against individuals affiliated with opposition groups.
In some instances the government interfered with the right of opposition parties to organize public functions and restricted the broadcasting of opposition political events. While Jamaat’s appeal of a 2012 High Court decision canceling the party’s registration remained pending with the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, the EC issued a notification deregistering Jamaat on October 28, disqualifying the organization from participating in the national election.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. In July parliament amended the constitution to extend by 25 more years a provision that reserves 50 seats for women in parliament. These female parliamentarians are nominated by the 300 directly elected parliamentarians. The seats reserved for women are distributed among parties proportionately to their parliamentary representation.