The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a US Congressional panel, dropped Bangladesh from its Watch List of countries deemed to violate minorities’ right to religious freedom. The absence of measures to promote minority voting rights and the failure of the government to investigate the severe anti-minority violence of 2001 were among the reasons for which Bangladesh was placed in the Watch List from 2005 to 2008. However, in light of the positive developments witnessed during the December 29, 2008 general elections, the commission removed Bangladesh from its Watch List of 2009.
The report said at that time the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led government failed to investigate or prosecute acts of severe violence, including killings, rape, land seizures, arson, and extortion committed against religious minorities, particularly Hindus, who were perceived to be allied to the then-opposition Awami League. Despite these improvements, USCIRF report said Bangladesh continues to have outstanding religious freedom issues and face threats from religious extremism.
According to the report, the BNP led by Khaleda Zia shared power with Islamist parties during 2001-06, when the country witnessed an unprecedented rise in religious intolerance. After refusing to for long, the BNP-led alliance government, in the face of protests at home and an international outcry, banned four Islamist outfits.
Aided by the expansion of Islamic schools (madrasas) and charities, many of which receive foreign funding with varying degrees of government oversight, Islamist activists have gained significantly in political, economic, and social influence in recent years, the commission’s report reads. Members of Jamaat-e-Islami allegedly used their influence in the previous BNP-led government to deny funding disadvantaged groups viewed as opposing Jamaat’s Islamist political and social agenda, it said.
It said the caretaker government was widely criticised by international and local human rights agencies for serious human rights abuses, including suspected extrajudicial killings by security forces, arbitrary detentions, torture, curbs on press freedom, and violations of the right to due process.
During the 2007-2008 emergency period, the commission said Islamist groups rose in political prominence and public visibility. In September 2007, emergency restrictions on assembly were apparently waived to allow Jamaat and other Islamist supporters burn effigies and stage public protests against the publication of a newspaper cartoon they believed mocked an element of Bangladeshi Islamic culture. Cartoonist Arifur Rahman was jailed without charge for six months. In March 2008, restrictions on assembly were again ostensibly lifted to allow protests by Islamic groups against a policy proposed by a consortium of women’s organisations to strengthen constitutional provision for the equal rights of women. In October 2008, federal agencies removed five sculptures of traditional Bengali musicians opposite Zia International Airport in Dhaka at the behest of Islamic leaders, who allegedly deemed the sculptures un-Islamic.
Turning to minorities situation, it said although the constitution provides protections for women and minorities, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Ahmadiyyas, and other minorities must regularly grapple with societal discrimination, as well as face prejudice that hinders their ability to access public services, the legal system, and government, military, and police employment.
The commission recommended that the US government encourage the new government of Bangladesh to take early actions on the following issues and ensure consistent implementation.
1. Investigate and prosecute perpetrators of the anti-minority violence that occurred in the wake of the 2001 national elections.
2. Repeal the Vested Property Act and commit to restoring or compensating owners for properties seized, including the heirs of original owners.
3. Rescind the 2004 order banning Ahmadiyya publications, and ensure adequate police response to attacks against Ahmadiyyas.
4. Enforce all provisions of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord and declare that members of Bangladesh’s tribal communities are deserving of the full rights of Bangladeshi citizenship.
5. Create and support the promised National Human Rights Commission, which should be independent, adequately funded, inclusive of women and minorities, and defined by a broad mandate that includes freedom of religion or belief.
6. Include in all public and madrasa school curricula, textbooks, and teacher trainings information on tolerance and respect for freedom of religion or belief.
7. Ensure that members of minority communities have equal access to government services and public employment, including the judiciary and high-level government positions.