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 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
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.
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.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, except in two sensitive areas–the CHT and Cox’s Bazar. The government enforced some restrictions on access to the CHT by foreigners.
More than 700,000 individuals, mostly Rohingya women and children, have fled violence in Burma since August 2017, which the Secretary of State determined in November constituted a deliberate campaign of ethnic cleansing by the Burmese military. The total number of Rohingya refugees hosted in Bangladesh was approximately one million living in refugee camps and host communities in Cox’s Bazar near the Burmese border. The government restricts Rohingya refugees to the Ukhia and Teknaf subdistricts in Cox’s Bazar, although the government has allowed exceptions for medical treatment in Cox’s Bazar city.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Prior to the August 2017 influx of Rohingya, UNHCR reported 66 survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in the camps who received counseling through March. In October the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported it identified approximately 100 cases of human trafficking among Rohingya refugees since September 2017 with the majority subjected to labor trafficking.
In-country Movement: The government is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol. As a result the government claims it is not bound under legal obligation to uphold the basic rights enshrined in this document.
The government does not recognize the new Rohingya arrivals as refugees, referring to them instead as “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals.” In practice, however, the government abides by many of the established UN standards for refugees. One notable exception is the Rohingya do not enjoy full freedom of movement throughout Bangladesh. While the refugees are able to move largely unrestricted in the Ukhia and Tekhaf subdistricts, the government established checkpoints to prevent their movement outside this area.
Members of the political opposition were sometimes prevented from moving around the country or faced harassment and detention when attempting to do so. Senior BNP leader and former law minister Moudud Ahmed was confined to his house in Noakhali twice during the year. Ahmed claimed police officials barricaded him in his home, preventing him from contact with his supporters and constituents, and from attending party-related events. He alleged police curbed his freedom of movement at the behest of Obaidul Quader, General Secretary of the incumbent Awami League and Minister for Road Transport and Bridges, who is his electoral rival in the area. Police claimed the measures were intended to increase security at Ahmed’s home in his capacity as a senior political figure.
Foreign Travel: Some senior opposition officials reported extensive delays renewing their passports; others reported harassment and delays at the airport when departing the country. On September 12, authorities at Shah Jalal International Airport in Dhaka delayed immigration clearance for BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir.
The government prevented war crimes suspects from the 1971 independence war from leaving the country.
The country’s passports are invalid for travel to Israel, according to government policy.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)
Societal tensions and marginalization of indigenous persons continued in the CHT as a result of a government policy initiated during an internal armed conflict from 1973-97. This policy relocated landless Bengalis to the CHT with the implicit objective of changing the demographic balance to make Bengalis the majority, displacing tens of thousands of indigenous persons.
The IDPs in the CHT had limited physical security. Community leaders maintained indigenous persons faced widespread violation of their rights by settlers, sometimes supported by security forces.
In 2016 the government amended the Chittagong Hill Tracts Land Dispute Resolution Commission Act to curtail the unilateral authority of the commission chair to make decisions on behalf of the commission. The amended act failed to resolve the disputes during the year as tribal leaders insisted on establishing a governing framework for the law before hearing disputes for resolution. In December 2017 the government reappointed Justice Mohammad Anwarul Haque chair of the commission for three years. The Land Ministry formulated rules for implementation of the act, but the rules have yet to be officially promulgated.
The number of IDPs in the CHT remained disputed. In 2000 a government task force estimated it to be 500,000, which included nonindigenous as well as indigenous persons. The CHT Commission estimated slightly more than 90,000 indigenous IDPs resided in the CHT. The prime minister pledged to resolve outstanding land disputes in the CHT to facilitate the return of the IDPs and close remaining military camps, but the task force on IDPs remained unable to function due to a dispute over classifying settlers as IDPs. The commission reported authorities displaced several indigenous families to create border guard camps and army recreational facilities. No land disputes were resolved during the year.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Prior to the August 2017 Rohingya influx, the government and UNHCR provided temporary protection and basic assistance to approximately 33,000 registered Rohingya refugees from Burma living in two official camps (Kutupalong and Nayapara), while the government and IOM provided assistance to approximately 200,000 undocumented Rohingya living in makeshift settlements in Cox’s Bazar. Since the additional influx of refugees in August 2017, approximately one million Rohingya refugees lived in refugee camps, makeshift settlements, and host communities. According to the United Nations, more than half of the population is less than 18 years old. A National Task Force, established by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, leads the coordination of the overall Rohingya crisis. The Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief coordinates the Rohingya response with support from the Bangladesh Army and Border Guard Bangladesh. At the local level, the Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) and the deputy commissioner provide coordination.
The government temporarily deployed the military to Cox’s Bazar District in the fall of 2017 to streamline relief and rehabilitation activities and to assist in registration of Rohingya in coordination with the civilian administration. In response to growing security concerns, the military has again become more active in the refugee camps, conducting patrols 24 hours a day. The Ministry of Home Affairs instructed law enforcement agencies to provide protection to the Rohingya people and their camps. International organizations alleged some Bangladeshi border guard, military, and police officials were involved in facilitating the trafficking of Rohingya women and children, ranging from “looking the other way” for bribes allowing traffickers to access Rohingya in the camps to direct involvement.
Refoulement: There was no refoulement or forced repatriation. On November 15, in an effort to demonstrate it was not blocking returns as alleged by Burma, Bangladesh sent buses to selected Rohingya camps to pick up anyone ready to return. Bangladesh called off the operation when no refugees volunteered. Several times during the year, senior government officials reaffirmed Bangladesh’s commitment to voluntary, safe, and dignified refugee returns, based on informed consent.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, nor has the government established a formal system for providing protection to refugees. The government provided significant protection and assistance to Rohingya resident in the country. The government cooperated with UNHCR to provide temporary protection and basic assistance to registered refugees resident in two official camps. After the 2017 arrival of Rohingya refugees, the government started to register the new refugees biometrically and provided identity cards with their Burmese address. The government is working jointly with UNHCR to verify Rohingya refugees and issue ID cards that replace prior cards and provide for protection of Rohingya refugees as well as better systems for accessing services and assistance. The card also affirms the government’s commitment against forced returns to Burma. Despite this documentation system, the lack of formal refugee status for Rohingya and clear legal reporting mechanisms in the camps impeded their access to the justice system, leading to underreporting of cases of abuse and exploitation and impunity for traffickers.
Freedom of Movement: There continued to be restrictions on Rohingyas’ freedom of movement. According to the 1993 memorandum of understanding between Bangladesh and UNHCR, registered Rohingya refugees are not permitted to move outside of the two camps. After the August 2017 influx, police set up checkpoints on the roads to restrict Rohingya travel beyond the Ukhia and Tefnaf subdistricts.
Many camp authorities have introduced curfews and law enforcement patrols, particularly at night, in response to reported concerns about violent attacks, abductions, or kidnappings in the camps.
Employment: The government did not formally authorize Rohingya refugees living in the country to work locally, although it allowed limited cash-for-work schemes for Rohingya to perform construction and maintenance tasks within the camps. Despite their movement restrictions, some refugees worked illegally as manual laborers in the informal economy. Undocumented Rohingya also worked illegally, mostly in day-labor jobs.
Access to Basic Services: The rapid increase in the population has occurred has strained services both inside and outside of the designated camps and makeshift settlements. The UN-led Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) coordinates the multitude of actors and agencies providing basic services to the Rohingya. Nonetheless, according to the ISCG, refugees lived in congested sites that were poorly equipped to handle the monsoon rains and cyclone seasons. While agencies have responded with significant efforts to move those most vulnerable, the shortage of land remains a central issue that hinders the ability of Rohingya to have access to basic services.
Public education, while mandatory as of 2010 through fifth grade throughout the country, remained a significant challenge for those children residing in the refugee camps and makeshift settlements. According to the ISCG, the education response since 2017 has focused on the provision of preprimary and primary education for refugee girls and boys and by September had reached a total of 139,444 children. There remained a significant gap for preprimary and primary-age children in the camps as well as inadequate coverage of adolescents between 15 to 24 years of age.
Government authorities did not allow registered or unregistered Rohingya formal and regular access to public health care. The health sector maintained information about all of the health facilities within the camps and the surrounding areas. There were 278 functional facilities known to the health sector, with a further 37 planned or under construction. Based on the data available, overall coverage met the minimum requirements.
The Rohingya in the country were legally or in fact stateless. They could not acquire citizenship, nor does the government of Burma recognize them as citizens.