Bangladesh’s constitution provides for a parliamentary form of government in which most power resides in the Office of the Prime Minister. In a December 2018 parliamentary election, Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party won a third consecutive five-year term that kept her in office as prime minister. This election was not considered free and fair by observers and was marred by reported irregularities, including ballot-box stuffing and intimidation of opposition polling agents and voters.
The security forces encompassing the national police, border guards, and counterterrorism units such as the Rapid Action Battalion maintain internal and border security. The military, primarily the army, is responsible for national defense but also has some domestic security responsibilities. The security forces report to the Ministry of Home Affairs and the military reports to the Ministry of Defense. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by the government or its agents; forced disappearance by the government or its agents; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government or its agents; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary or unlawful detentions; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; violence, threats of violence and arbitrary arrests of journalists and human rights activists, censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, such as overly restrictive nongovernmental organization laws and restrictions on the activities of such organizations; restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation; corruption; criminal violence against women and girls and lack of investigation and accountability; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting indigenous people; crimes involving violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct; significant restrictions on independent trade unions and workers’ rights; and 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.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
The constitution provides for the rights to life and personal liberty. There were numerous reports, however, that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
Law enforcement raids occurred throughout the year, primarily to counter terrorist activity, drugs, and illegal firearms. Suspicious deaths occurred during some raids, arrests, and other law enforcement operations. Security forces frequently accounted for such deaths by claiming–when they took a suspect in custody to a crime scene to recover weapons or identify coconspirators–accomplices fired on police and killed the suspect. The government usually described these deaths as “crossfire killings,” “gunfights,” or “encounter killings.” The media also used these terms to describe legitimate uses of police force. Human rights organizations and media outlets claimed many of these crossfire incidents actually constituted extrajudicial killings. Human rights organizations claimed in some cases law enforcement units detained, interrogated, and tortured suspects, brought them back to the scene of the original arrest, executed them, and ascribed the death to lawful self-defense in response to violent attacks.
Police policy requires automatic internal investigations of all significant uses of force by police, including actions that resulted in serious physical injury or death, usually by a professional standards unit that reports directly to the Inspector General of Police. The government, however, neither released statistics on total killings by security personnel nor took comprehensive measures to investigate cases. Human rights groups expressed skepticism over the independence and professional standards of the units conducting these assessments. In the few known instances in which the government brought charges, those found guilty generally received administrative punishment.
Domestic human rights organization Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) reported 196 incidents of alleged extrajudicial killings between January and July 28. According to ASK, many of these killings involved the Rapid Action Battalion–a paramilitary police force–the conventional police force, and Border Guards Bangladesh. In 2019 ASK reported a total of 388 incidents of alleged extrajudicial executions, down from 466 incidents in 2018. Human rights organizations and civil society expressed concern over the alleged extrajudicial killings and arrests, claiming many of the victims were innocent.
In September, Amnesty International said more than 100 Rohingya refugees were victims of extrajudicial killings in the country since 2017. In Cox’s Bazar, the site of Rohingya refugee camps, Rohingya comprised a disproportionate percentage of reported “crossfire” killings. The press reported in July that security forces killed 22 individuals, suspected mostly of conducting drug deals, in reported gunfights with police. At least 10 were Rohingya. In response to these reports, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan refuted characterizations of the Rohingya as “victims” of extrajudicial killings and said they were “armed narcotics smugglers” crossing Myanmar into Bangladesh. After speaking with family members of the deceased, Amnesty International reported several of the killed Rohingya were picked up from their homes by the police and then found dead.
On July 31, police in Cox’s Bazar shot and killed “Sinha” Md Rashed Khan, a retired army major at a police vehicle checkpoint. Police reported Sinha “brandished” a gun, while eyewitnesses said Sinha had left the firearm in the car when he was asked by police to exit the vehicle. Sinha’s killing generated intense public discussion on police, extrajudicial killings, and law enforcement excesses. In August the Ministry of Home Affairs convened a senior investigation committee in response to the killing, suspending 21 police officers and charging nine police officers in connection with Sinha’s death.
Also in August a news outlet released a Facebook video showing the senior police officer arrested, Pradeep Das, openly admitting to killing drug suspects in “crossfires.” In 2019 Das received the highest police award after boasting of his involvement in extrajudicial killings. In September the police administration transferred almost all 1,500 police officers in Cox’s Bazar to other posts. While the police called the transfer an “administrative move,” the media called this action “unprecedented” and observers cited in the report said the action was made as part of a “corrective campaign” in connection with public outcry following Sinha’s death. In October media reported September was the first month since 2009 without a report of an extrajudicial killing.
Human rights groups and media reported disappearances and kidnappings continued, allegedly committed by security services. The government made limited efforts to prevent or investigate such acts. Civil society organizations reported victims of enforced disappearance were mostly opposition leaders, activists, and dissidents. Following alleged disappearances, security forces released some individuals without charge, arrested others, found some dead, and never found others. In a 2019 report discussing enforced disappearances, the Paris-based organization International Federation of Human Rights concluded enforced disappearances followed a pattern that included disappeared individuals previously targeted by authorities; witnesses observed similar law enforcement tactics when detaining individuals who later disappeared, and following the disappearance, authorities treated relatives either dismissively or with threats.
The government did not respond to a request from the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances to visit the country.
On March 10, photojournalist and news editor Shafiqul Islam Kajol disappeared after leaving his house for work. The previous day a member of parliament filed a case against Kajol and 31 others, claiming a media story covering a crime syndicate involving drugs, money, and prostitution defamed the member of parliament. On May 3, police in the border town Benapole confirmed to the press that Kajol was “rescued” near the border with India border and detained him on trespassing charges. Kajol’s family told the press they believe Kajol was forcibly disappeared and held in government detention from March through May. Kajol spent 237 days in prison on defamation charges and was released on bail on December 25.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution and law prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, local and international human rights organizations and media reported security forces, including intelligence services and police, employed torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. According to multiple organizations, including the UN Committee against Torture (CAT), security forces reportedly used torture to gather information from alleged militants and members of political opposition parties. Security forces reportedly used threats, beatings, kneecappings, electric shock, rape, and other sexual abuse. Numerous organizations also claimed security forces were involved in widespread and routine commission of torture–occasionally resulting in death–for the purpose of soliciting payment of bribes or obtaining confessions. According to these organizations, impunity for government actors committing torture was extensive. Politicization of crimes was a factor in impunity for custodial torture. During the government’s 2019 statement to the CAT, the Bangladesh government has a “zero tolerance” policy against custodial death; however, allegations of law enforcement committing torture and other forms of mistreatment were not investigated. In September a Dhaka court issued a verdict under the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act for the first time and sentenced three police officers to life imprisonment and two others to seven years in prison over the 2014 custodial death of Ishtiaque Hossain Jonny. In 2019 the CAT expressed concerns with allegations of widespread use of torture and mistreatment by law enforcement officials to obtain confessions or to solicit the payment of bribes. The CAT report also cited the lack of publicly available information on abuse cases and the failure to ensure accountability for law enforcement agencies, particularly the Rapid Action Battalion.
In June media reported the police’s cruel treatment and extortion of university student Imran Hossain, who suffered kidney damage after an encounter with law enforcement. According to news reports, Hossain was returning home with a friend in June when police from Sajiali camp stopped them and demanded to search their bags. Hossain ran away, leading police to chase and beat him until he lost consciousness. When he regained consciousness, police said he was arrested with cannabis in his possession. Police then released Hossain in exchange for a bribe of 6,000 taka ($71) and threatened to place him in interrogative custody if he told anyone about the incident. When Hossain returned home, his condition deteriorated and he was admitted to Queen’s Hospital in Jashore, where a kidney specialist reported Hossain’s kidneys had stopped working and that he would need regular dialysis. Following news reports of the incident, two Supreme Court lawyers submitted a writ petition to the High Court seeking the government take necessary action against the police responsible for torturing Hossain. In response to the High Court request, the Superintendent of Jashore police submitted an investigative report to the Court, saying three police officers had taken “unethical benefits” from Hossain’s father in exchange for releasing him from custody.
The law contains provisions allowing a magistrate to place a suspect in interrogative custody, known as remand, during which questioning of the suspect can take place without a lawyer present. Human rights organizations alleged many instances of torture occurred during remand.
In September the international organization Reporters without Borders (RSF) reported the release of news editor and journalist Faridul Mostafa after an 11-month detention following news coverage of corruption in connection with local government authorities and drug trafficking. In stories published before his detention, Mostafa’s reporting alleged a connection between Teknaf police officer-in-charge Pradeep Das and local drug cartels. Mostafa was arrested on September 2019 and according to his wife, tortured in custody. When Mostafa appeared in court three days after his arrest, his wife said his hands and legs were broken, and the nails of his fingers and toes were pulled out. His eyesight had been badly affected by red chili powder rubbed in his eyes and he was forced to drink sewage water, causing severe diarrhea. The RSF said police planted drugs, firearms, and alcohol and pretended to discover them as grounds to keep Mostafa in jail. Mostafa was released in August, following the arrest of Das in connection with a retired army major’s killing (see section 1.a.).
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were harsh and at times life threatening due to severe overcrowding, inadequate facilities, and a lack of proper sanitation. There were no private detention facilities.
Physical Conditions: According to the Assistant Inspector General of Prisons, in March more than 89,000 prisoners occupied a system designed to hold 41,244 inmates. When the first COVID-19 cases appeared in the country in March, federal authorities instituted a policy requiring prison authorities to screen all incoming inmates for symptoms and keep them in a short quarantine. Superintendents at field prisons said they had no capacity to isolate inmates infected by COVID-19. Authorities often incarcerated pretrial detainees with convicted prisoners.
Officials reported only 11 prison doctors provide care to the 89,000 inmates, causing prisons to employ nurses or pharmacists to provide medical care to them.
Conditions in prisons, and often within the same prison complex, varied widely. Authorities lodged some prisoners in areas subject to high temperatures, poor ventilation, and overcrowding. The law allows individuals whom prison officials designated as “very important persons” (VIP) to access “Division A” prison facilities with improved living conditions and food, more frequent family visitation rights, and the provision of another prisoner without VIP status to serve as an aide in the cell.
While the law requires holding juveniles separately from adults, authorities incarcerated many juveniles with adults. Children were sometimes imprisoned (occasionally with their mothers) despite laws and court decisions prohibiting the imprisonment of minors. Authorities held female prisoners separately from men.
In August, three male youths died in a juvenile correction center in Jashore. Officials at the correction center said the boys were killed in a fight with other inmates; however, days after the incident, the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association reported allegations of torture in the correction center and demanded a separate judicial inquiry into the death. A journalist reported juvenile centers made no effort to rehabilitate youths in custody, had appointed officials not trained to handle juvenile delinquency, and treated the youths as criminals as opposed to juveniles with special needs. The investigative report found “huge irregularities” in providing food, medicines, and other essentials and said the youths were tortured for protesting these irregularities. In at least one instance, inmates deemed “loyal” were used to torture defiant inmates.
Although Dhaka’s central jail had facilities for those with mental disabilities, not all detention facilities had such facilities, nor are they required by law. Judges may reduce punishments for persons with disabilities on humanitarian grounds. Jailors also may make special arrangements, for example, by transferring inmates with disabilities to a prison hospital.
Administration: Prisons had no ombudsperson to whom prisoners could submit complaints. Prisons lacked any formal process for offenders to submit grievances. The scope for retraining and rehabilitation programs was extremely limited.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted visits from governmental inspectors and nongovernmental observers who were aligned with the incumbent party. No reports on these inspections were released.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but the law 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 law also permits authorities to arrest and detain individuals without an order from a magistrate or a warrant if authorities perceive the individual is involved with a “cognizable offense.” 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.
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 law 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 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 in new cases without producing them in court when they are released on bail.
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 this.
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 regarding other suspects. The expansiveness of the 1974 Special Powers Act grants a legal justification for arrests that would often otherwise be considered arbitrary, since it removes the requirement arrests be based on crimes that have occurred previously. Human rights activists claimed police falsely constructed cases to target opposition leaders, workers, and supporters, and that the government used the law enforcement agency to crack down on political rivals.
According to news reports, between July and September government authorities arrested at least 251 returning migrant workers from Southeast Asia and the Middle East with allegations of “tarnishing the image of [Bangladesh].” Amnesty International said the number of arrested workers was at least 370. In response to media queries, the police said the migrant workers’ destination countries had requested authorities to detain the workers once they returned to the country; however, human rights groups characterized these requests as specious and said while some of the returning workers were jailed abroad, they had all either completed their sentences or had their sentences commuted due to COVID-19. Prior to their detention in Bangladesh, several of the jailed returnee migrant workers said they were victims of human trafficking in their destination country. Approximately 80 detained migrant workers received bail in October, while the rest remained in prison. On October 8, the High Court directed a Dhaka police station to appear before the court to explain the legal reason for the migrants’ detention.
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.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides for an independent judiciary, but corruption and political interference compromised its independence.
Human rights observers maintained magistrates, attorneys, and court officials demanded bribes from defendants in many cases, or courts ruled based on influence from or loyalty to political patronage networks. Observers claimed judges who made decisions unfavorable to the government risked transfer to other jurisdictions. Officials reportedly discouraged lawyers from representing defendants in certain cases.
Corruption and a substantial backlog of cases hindered the court system, and the granting of extended continuances effectively prevented many defendants from obtaining fair trials.
In September the High Court ordered BRAC Bank to pay 1.5 million taka ($17,705) to Jahalam, a jute factory worker held for three years and repeatedly misidentified as another man accused of fraud and embezzlement, for his wrongful imprisonment since two of BRAC Bank’s officials supplied a photo of Jahalam instead of the real accused. In delivering the verdict, the High Court cautioned the Anti-Corruption Commission to be careful in investigating inquiries and in appointing investigating officers so that similar incidents did not occur in the future. The court also expressed appreciation to the two media outlets for publishing reports on Jahalam’s wrongful imprisonment.
The constitution provides the right to a fair and public trial, but the judiciary did not always protect this right due to corruption, partisanship, and weak human resources.
Defendants are presumed innocent, have the right to appeal, and have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them. Defendants do not have the right to a timely trial. The accused are entitled to be present at their public trial. Indigent defendants have the right to a public defender. Trials are conducted in the Bengali language; the government does not provide free interpretation for defendants who cannot understand or speak Bengali. Defendants have the right to adequate time to prepare a defense.
Accused persons have the right to confront prosecution or plaintiff witnesses and present their own witnesses and evidence. They also have the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt although defendants who do not confess are often kept in custody. The government frequently did not respect these rights.
Mobile courts headed by executive branch magistrates rendered immediate verdicts that often included prison terms to defendants who were not afforded the opportunity for legal representation. In June the High Court ruled mobile courts could not hold trials against children.
In March a mobile court accompanied by a group of law enforcement officers and magistrates in Kurigram district broke into the home of journalist Ariful Islam, beat him, took him to the deputy commissioner’s office, and sentenced him to one year in prison on charges of possessing narcotics. Within days, the minister for public administration said the deputy commissioner would be removed for “irregularities” in Islam’s case. Legal experts called the mobile court’s actions illegal because the court did not have the authority to break into Islam’s home and beat him. In September the same ministry established an official committee to investigate the incident related to the “illegal arrest, torture, and punishment” of Islam.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were reports of political prisoners or detainees. Political affiliation often appeared to be a factor in claims of arrest and prosecution of members of opposition parties, including through spurious charges under the pretext of responding to national security threats. Police jailed opposition party activists throughout the year for criticizing the government over its actions in managing COVID-19.
In February 2018 former prime minister of Bangladesh and chairperson of the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP), Khaleda Zia, was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment on corruption and embezzlement charges, which were first filed in 2008 under a nonpartisan caretaker government. In October 2018 the High Court increased her sentence to 10 years. International and domestic legal experts commented on the lack of evidence to support the conviction, suggesting a political ploy to remove the leader of the opposition from the electoral process. The courts were generally slow in considering petitions for bail on her behalf. In March the government suspended Zia’s sentence for six months on humanitarian grounds, and suspended it again in September for another six months. In both instances the government restricted Zia’s travel, saying she would receive medical treatment in Dhaka and could not travel abroad.
On July 3, the court sentenced nine men to death and 25 men to life imprisonment for a 1994 attack on a train carrying Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina; at the time she was the leader of the opposition party. The convicted persons were all BNP members. BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir condemned the verdict and said the case was “fake and fabricated,” alleging the Awami League had staged the attack.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
Individuals and organizations may seek judicial remedies for human rights violations; however, lack of public faith in the court system deterred many from filing complaints. While the law has a provision for an ombudsperson, one had not been established.
In September a Dhaka court sentenced three police officers to life imprisonment and two others to seven years in prison over the 2014 custodial death of Ishtiaque Hossain Jonny. The convicted were also fined, funds payable to Jonny’s family. This was the first verdict under the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act, 2013.
The government did not implement a 2001 act to accelerate the process of return of land to primarily Hindu individuals (see section 6). The act allows the government to confiscate property of anyone whom it declares to be an enemy of the state. It was often used to seize property abandoned by minority religious groups when they fled the country, particularly after the 1971 independence war.
Minority communities continued to report land ownership disputes that disproportionately displaced minorities, especially in areas near new roads or industrial development zones where land prices had increased. They also claimed local police, civil authorities, and political leaders were sometimes involved in evictions or shielded politically influential land grabbers from prosecution (see section 6). In 2016 the government amended a law which may allow for land restitution for indigenous persons living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), but the disputes have not been resolved (see section 2.d.).
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law does not prohibit arbitrary interference with private correspondence. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies may monitor private communications with the permission of the Ministry of Home Affairs, but police rarely obtained such permission from the courts to monitor private correspondence. Human rights organizations alleged the police, the National Security Intelligence, and the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence employed informers to conduct surveillance and report on citizens perceived to be critical of the government.
Between March and September, the government became increasingly active in monitoring social media sites and other electronic communications in order to scan public discussions on COVID-19 and the government’s handling of the virus. In March the Information Ministry announced the formation of a unit to monitor social media and television outlets for “rumors” related to COVID-19.
In September the High Court asserted citizens’ right to privacy and said the collection of call lists or conversations from public or private phone companies without formal approval and knowledge of the individual must stop. In its verdict the court stated, “It is our common experience that nowadays private communications among citizens, including their audios/videos, are often leaked and published in social media for different purposes.”
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the 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. Many journalists self-censored their criticisms of the government due to harassment and fear of reprisal.
Freedom of Speech: 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 latitude to interpret it. 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 which constitutes contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to an offense. The law criminalizes any criticism of constitutional bodies.
The 2018 Digital Security Act (DSA), passed ostensibly to reduce cybercrime, provides for sentences of up to 10 years’ imprisonment for spreading “propaganda” against the Bangladesh Liberation War, the national anthem, or the national flag.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, the government widely used the DSA against persons questioning the government’s handling of the pandemic. The government also issued other restrictions on freedom of speech. On April 16, the Department of Nursing and Midwifery banned nurses from speaking to the press after the media reported the health sector’s lack of preparation in managing COVID-19. On April 23, Health Minister Zahid Maleque banned all health officials from speaking with the media.
On October 13, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a press release restricting “false, fabricated, misleading and provocative statements” regarding the government, public representatives, army officers, police, and law enforcement through social media in the country and abroad. The release said legal action would be taken against individuals who did not comply, in the interest of maintaining stability and internal law and order in the country.
During the week of May 3, press outlets reported at least 19 journalists, activists, and other citizens were charged under the DSA with defamation, spreading rumors, and carrying out antigovernment activities. Media accounts of a police case report involving 11 accused individuals detailed Rapid Action Battalion search of mobile phones of two accused and found “antigovernment” chats with other accused individuals. According to the police, these “antigovernment” chats sufficed as evidence to charge and detain the individuals under the DSA.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Both print and online independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views; however, media outlets that criticized the government were pressured by the government.
The government maintained editorial control over the country’s public television station and mandated private channels broadcast government content at no charge to the viewer. Civil society organizations 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 and student affiliates of the ruling party, subjected journalists to physical attacks, harassment, and intimidation, especially when tied to the DSA. The DSA was viewed by human rights activists as a government and ruling party tool to intimidate journalists. The Editors’ Council, an association of newspaper editors, stated the DSA stifled investigative journalism. Individuals faced the threat of being arrested, held in pretrial detention, subjected to expensive criminal trials, fines, and imprisonment, as well as the social stigma associated with having a criminal record.
On April 10, during the government instituted lockdown to control COVID-19 transmission, a police constable from Hazaribagh police station beat Nasir Uddin Rocky, a journalist with Daily Jugantar, and his brother Saifuddin Quraish, a health worker, even though both men had cards around their necks identifying themselves as essential workers. Officials relieved the constable of his duties, and nongovernmental organizations (NGO) reported the police had initiated an investigation into the case.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Independent journalists and media alleged intelligence services influenced media outlets in part by withholding financially important government advertising and pressing private companies to withhold their advertising as well. The government penalized media that criticized it or carried messages of the political opposition’s activities and statements. In September a group of media experts, NGOs, and journalists said the downward trend of the rule of law and freedom for the media went hand in hand with government media censorship, which, in civil society’s view, translated to the government’s distrust of society.
Privately owned newspapers usually were free to carry diverse views. Political polarization and self-censorship remained a problem. Investigative journalists often complained of their management and of editors “killing” reports for fear of pressure from the government and its intelligence agencies. Some journalists received threats after publishing their stories.
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.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel, slander, defamation, and blasphemy are treated as criminal offenses, most commonly employed against individuals speaking against the government, the prime minister, or other government officials. As of July, 420 petitions requesting an investigation had been filed under the Digital Security Act with more than 80 individuals arrested. Law referring to defamation of individuals and organizations was used to prosecute opposition figures and members of civil society.
Nongovernmental Impact: Atheist, secular, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) writers and bloggers reported they continued to receive death threats from violent extremist organizations.
During June and July, the RSF reported a number of societal attacks against journalists, many in connection with anger over published reports with allegations of corruption and nepotism in the government’s COVID assistance response. According to the RSF, 10 men beat journalist Shariful Alam Chowdhury with steel bars, machetes, and hammers. During the beating, Chowdhury’s arms and legs were broken. Chowdhury’s family told the RSF they believed local village council authorities called for this attack.
The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet and censored online content in isolated incidents. The government banned 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.
During the year the government restricted 3G and 4G mobile internet service in Rohingya refugee camps for “security reasons,” according to government officials, and ordered mobile service providers to stop selling SIM cards to Rohingya refugees.
The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) is charged regulating 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.
Al-Jazeera remained blocked in the country; the government blocked it in March 2019, hours after it published an article detailing the alleged involvement of a senior security and defense figure in the disappearance of three men as part of a business dispute involving his wife. In August, Amar Desh, a popular news outlet with views favoring the opposition party, started publishing online news through a United Kingdom “.uk” domain. The government had shut down Amar Desh in 2016. Less than 24 hours after Amar Desh began operating, the government blocked the website.
In early April the BRTC blocked Radio Free Asia affiliate BenarNews after the outlet covered a leaked UN memo warning two million Bangladeshis could die from COVID-19 absent appropriate government measures. While access was partially restored in May, observers note the BenarNews website was occasionally blocked up to year’s end.
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.
In June, Begum Rokeya University authorities filed a complaint under the Digital Security Act against Professor Sirajum Munira for a Facebook post the university authorities claimed mocked the late Mohammad Nasim, a former senior government official in the health ministry. Although Munira apologized and deleted the post, police used a screenshot of the deleted post as evidence to arrest her. Several days later a private attorney filed a police complaint under the Digital Security Act against Rajshahi University professor Kazi Zahidur Rahman for making “defamatory comments” regarding Nasim in two Facebook posts. Rahman was later arrested in connection with this complaint. Media reported both Begum Rokeya University and Rajshahi University suspended these professors following their arrests.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government limited or restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The law provides 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. The government requires advance permission for gatherings such as protests and demonstrations.
According to human rights NGOs, authorities continued to use approval provisions to disallow gatherings by opposition groups and imposed what observers saw as unreasonable requirements for permits. Occasionally police or ruling party activists used force to disperse demonstrations.
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 law 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).
c. Freedom of Religion
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, except in two sensitive areas: the CHT and the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar. The government enforced restrictions on access to the CHT by foreigners and also restricted the movement of Rohingya refugees. While foreign travel is allowed, some senior civil society and international NGO representatives reported harassment and delays at the airport when applying for a visa, entering, or departing the country. The government prevented war crimes suspects from the 1971 independence war from leaving the country.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
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 internally displaced persons (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. See section 6, indigenous persons.
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 recently 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 taskforce 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.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government is not a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1967 Protocol. As a result the government claims it is not under legal obligation to uphold the basic rights enshrined in this treaty.
Prior to the 2017 Rohingya arrivals, the government and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (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 the International Organization for Migration provided assistance to approximately 200,000 undocumented Rohingya living in makeshift settlements in Cox’s Bazar. In August 2017 more than 700,000 Rohingya fled ethnic cleansing and other atrocities in neighboring Burma to seek safe haven in Bangladesh. As a result of this influx, more than 860,000 registered Rohingya refugees were living in refugee camps, makeshift settlements, and host communities. The government did not recognize the arrivals as refugees, referring to them instead as “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals.” In practice, however, the government abided by many of the established UN standards for refugees. One notable exception was the Rohingya did not enjoy full freedom of movement throughout the country.
A National Task Force under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs led the coordination of the overall Rohingya crisis. The Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief coordinated the Rohingya response with support from the army and border guards. At the local level, the Refugee, Relief, and Repatriation Commission provided coordination. While telecommunication services in Cox’s Bazar were restored in August, the one-year restriction limited access to mobile and internet service in and around camps and hampered emergency response and coordination of life-saving services, including the Protection Hotline for reporting incidents of violence or abuse, and sharing critical information related to the coronavirus.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to Rohingya refugees. NGOs reported human trafficking was common in the camps with few cases prosecuted in the country’s judicial system. When discovered, government officials returned trafficking victims to the camps.
International organizations reported gender-based violence directed against women in the camps, with intimate partner violence comprising an overwhelming majority–approximately 70 to 80 percent–of the cases. International organizations warned the numbers could increase further if the dearth of livelihood and educational opportunities for Rohingya men continued.
Accountability for all crimes, including human trafficking, remained a problem. Rohingya relied on government officials responsible for each camp (also known as the Camps in Charge, or CiC) to address allegations of crime. The CiCs were largely autonomous in practice and varied in terms of responsiveness to camp needs. According to international organizations, some CiCs were susceptible to corruption. International organizations alleged some border guard, military, and police officials were involved in facilitating trafficking of Rohingya women and children, ranging from “looking the other way,” to bribes for allowing traffickers to access Rohingya in the camps, to direct involvement in trafficking.
In May the Bangladesh navy rescued Rohingya boat refugees stranded in the open waters and later brought 306 of these refugees to Bhasan Char, a Bangladeshi, remote island in the Bay of Bengal. Rohingya located at Bhasan Char had no means to travel to camps in Cox’s Bazar, where many claimed to have family members. Bhasan Char residents had no means to exit the island, leading some human rights groups to characterize the Rohingya stay on the island as “detention.” Despite pleas from international human rights groups to move the refugees to the mainland, the government rejected the request and said the refugees lived better lives on the island than within the cramped living conditions in Cox’s Bazar.
Authorities have not yet agreed on terms of reference with the UN for an independent protection mission or terms of reference for a technical assessment of Bhasan Char. Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups stated the Rohingya refugees relocated to the island as of September lacked medical access and proper sanitation, including supplies for safe menstrual hygiene. Those on the island state they are denied freedom of movement and have no access to sustainable livelihoods or education. On September 21, several Rohingya refugees began a hunger strike to protest their continued stay on the island. International media, including the Guardian, reported security forces on the island have sexually assaulted Rohingya refugees. Human Rights Watch also reported navy personnel beat them with rubber sticks and tree branches when they protested their stay on the island. Authorities have not investigated these reports.
International media, including The Guardian, reported authorities relocated an additional 1,642 Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char in early December, and an additional 1,800 in late December. Future relocations are planned, and questions regarding the voluntariness of those refugees relocating remain.
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 refugees resident in the country. Prior to 2017, 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 more than 740,000 additional Rohingya refugees, the government started to register the new refugees biometrically and provided identity cards with their Burmese addresses. At the end of 2019, the government completed the second phase of its joint registration exercise with UNHCR to verify Rohingya refugees and issue identity cards that replaced prior cards and provided for protection of Rohingya refugees, consistent with the government’s stance 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 refugees’ access to the justice system.
Freedom of Movement: There were restrictions on Rohingya freedom of movement. According to the 1993 memorandum of understanding between Bangladesh and UNHCR, registered Rohingya refugees are not permitted to move outside the two official camps. After the August 2017 influx, police set up checkpoints on the roads to restrict travel by both registered refugees and new arrivals beyond the Ukhia and Teknaf subdistricts. In 2019 the government began erecting watchtowers and fencing in the camps; the government stated the objective was to better secure the camp and protect Rohingya from migrant smuggling, while humanitarian agencies expressed concerns that fencing would hinder delivery of services to refugees and exacerbate tensions between refugees and host communities.
Many camp authorities 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 activities for Rohingya to perform tasks within the camps. Despite their movement restrictions, some refugees worked illegally as manual laborers on the informal economy, where some were exploited as labor trafficking victims.
Access to Basic Services: The rapid increase in the population strained services both inside and outside of the designated camps and makeshift settlements. The UN-led Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) coordinates the many actors and agencies providing basic services to the Rohingya. Nonetheless, according to the ISCG, refugees lived in congested sites which were poorly equipped to handle the monsoon rains and cyclone seasons. While agencies made significant efforts to move those most vulnerable, the shortage of land remained a central issue hindering the ability of Rohingya to access basic services.
Public education remained a problem. The government continued its policy prohibiting formal education but allowed informal education of Rohingya children. UNICEF led the education sector in developing a comprehensive learning approach to guide the education interventions of humanitarian partners in the camps. Primary education followed a learning framework developed by UNICEF and endorsed by the government; it does not confer recognition or certify students have attained a specific education level by the Bangladeshi or Burmese government, however. In January the government endorsed an education sector pilot program to provide education using the Burmese national curriculum to 10,000 Rohingya refugee children by the end of the year. Implementation has been delayed due to COVID-19-related closures of refugee learning centers.
Government authorities allowed registered and unregistered Rohingya regular access to public health care but Rohingya needed authorities’ permission to leave the camp. Humanitarian partners ensured their health-care expenses were covered and that they returned to the camps. The health sector maintained information on all of the health facilities within the camps and the surrounding areas. Based on the data available, overall coverage met the minimum requirements.
g. Stateless Persons
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.
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 (AL) party won a third consecutive five-year term in a December 2018 parliamentary election that observers considered neither free nor fair 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 BNP and its allies won only seven seats. Parliament conferred the official status of opposition on the Jatiya Party, a component of the AL-led governing coalition, which seated 22 members in parliament. 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, or campaign freely.
During the 2018 national elections, the government did not grant credentials or 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. Only seven of the 22 Election Working Group NGOs were approved by the Home Ministry, NGO Affairs Bureau, and the Election Commission to observe the domestic election.
Low voter turnout, intimidation, irregularities, and low-scale violence targeting opposition-nominated candidates during campaigns and voting marked several by-elections throughout the country during the year.
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 in 2018 based on corruption charges filed under a nonpartisan caretaker government in 2008. Up to March, Zia was unable to take advantage of bail awarded in this case pending appeal due to more than two dozen other charges filed against her in recent years by the government. Following the outbreak of COVID-19 in March, the government suspended Zia’s jail sentence for six months in consideration of her age and illness and, on March 25, released her on the condition she would not leave the country. In September the government extended this provision for six more months on the same condition after her family filed a petition seeking her “permanent release” and permission to go abroad for medical care. The BNP claimed police implicated thousands of BNP members in criminal charges prior to the 2018 national election and detained many of the accused. Human rights observers claimed many of these charges were politically motivated.
Opposition activists faced criminal charges. Leaders and members of Jamaat-e-Islami (Jamaat), the largest Islamist political party in the country, could not exercise their constitutional freedoms of speech and assembly because of harassment by law enforcement. Jamaat was deregistered as a political party by the government, prohibiting candidates from seeking office under the Jamaat name, and the fundamental constitutional rights of speech and assembly of its leaders and members were denied. Media outlets deemed critical of the government and the AL were subjected to government intimidation and cuts in advertising revenue, and practiced some self-censorship to avoid adverse actions by the government.
AL-affiliated organizations such as its student wing, the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), reportedly carried out violence and intimidation around the country with impunity, including against individuals affiliated with opposition groups. On June 22, activists of the youth and student wings of the Awami League attacked a BNP relief team near Chuna bridge in Shyamnagar upazila of southwestern Satkhira District, leaving at least 10 individuals injured. Newspapers quoted BNP leaders and local residents as saying the BNP relief team was on its way to areas hit by hurricane Amphan.
On September 16, a Speedy Trial Tribunal in Dhaka indicted 25 ruling party student activists for the October 2019 killing of Abrar Fahad Rabbi, a student at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. Rabbi was beaten to death over suspected involvement with the group Shibir, Jamaat-e-Islami’s student wing, and following several Facebook posts criticizing recent bilateral agreements with India.
The 86 criminal charges filed by the government against BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir in previous years remained unresolved; Alamgir remained free on bail. The charges involved attacks on police, burning buses, and throwing bombs.
In some instances, the government interfered with the right of opposition parties to organize public functions and restricted broadcasting of opposition political events. Political parties, however, had limited outdoor activities this year as the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to go virtual or stay indoors.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. In 2018 parliament amended the constitution to extend by 25 additional years a provision that reserves 50 seats for women. 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. Political parties failed to meet a parliamentary rule to have women comprise 33 per cent of all committee members by the end of the year, leading the Electoral Commission to propose eliminating the rule altogether.