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Mapping Bangladesh’s Political Crisis
Mapping Bangladesh’s Political Crisis
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Political Conflict, Extremism and Criminal Justice 
in Bangladesh
Political Conflict, Extremism and Criminal Justice 
in Bangladesh
Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) activists shout slogans during a rally in Dhaka on 20 January 2014. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj
Report 264 / Asia

Mapping Bangladesh’s Political Crisis

Violence continues to plague the aftermath of Bangladesh’s deeply contested January 2014 elections. The country’s two main post-independence parties must turn back from a political dead end that is doing long-term damage to them both, negotiate a return to democratic rules and work towards a new all-party cabinet to oversee new elections.

Executive Summary

On 5 January, the first anniversary of the deeply contested 2014 elections, the most violent in Bangladesh’s history, clashes between government and opposition groups led to several deaths and scores injured. The confrontation marks a new phase of the deadlock between the ruling Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) opposition, which have swapped time in government with metronomic consistency since independence. Having boycotted the 2014 poll, the BNP appears bent on ousting the government via street power. With daily violence at the pre-election level, the political crisis is fast approaching the point of no return and could gravely destabilise Bangladesh unless the sides move urgently to reduce tensions. Moreover, tribunals set up to adjudicate crimes perpetrated at the moment of Bangladesh’s bloody birth threaten division more than reconciliation. Both parties would be best served by changing course: the AL government by respecting the democratic right to dissent (recalling its time in opposition); the BNP by reviving its political fortunes through compromise with the ruling party, rather than violent street politics.

With the two largest mainstream parties unwilling to work toward a new political compact that respects the rights of both opposition and victor to govern within the rule of law, extremists and criminal networks could exploit the resulting political void. Violent Islamist factions are already reviving, threatening the secular, democratic order. While jihadi forces see both parties as the main hurdle to the establishment of an Islamic order, the AL and the BNP perceive each other as the main adversary.

The AL and its leader, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajid, emphasise that the absence from parliament of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and her BNP make them political non-entities. Yet, concerned about a comeback, the government is attempting to forcibly neutralise the political opposition and stifle dissent, including by bringing corruption and other criminal cases against party leaders, among whom are Zia and her son and heir apparent, Tarique Rahman; heavy-handed use of police and paramilitary forces; and legislation and policies that undermine fundamental constitutional rights.

The BNP, which has not accepted any responsibility for the election-related violence in 2014 that left hundreds dead (and saw hundreds of Hindu homes and shops vandalised), is again attempting to oust the government by force, in alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami, which is alleged to have committed some of the worst abuses during that period. The party retains its core supporters and seems to have successfully mobilised its activists on the streets. Yet, its sole demand – for a fresh election under a neutral caretaker – is too narrow to generate the public support it needs to overcome the disadvantage of being out of parliament, and its political capital is fading fast as it again resorts to violence. 

The deep animosity and mistrust between leaders and parties were not inevitable. Despite a turbulent history, they earlier cooperated to end direct or indirect military rule and strengthen democracy, most recently during the 2007-2008 tenure of the military-backed caretaker government (CTG), when the high command tried to remove both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia from politics. Rather than building on that cooperation, the two leaders have resorted to non-democratic methods to undermine each other. In power, both have used centralised authority, a politicised judiciary and predatory law enforcement agencies against legitimate opposition.

Underpinning the current crisis is the failure to agree on basic standards for multiparty democratic functioning. While the BNP claims to be the guardian of Bangladeshi nationalism, the AL has attempted to depict itself as the sole author and custodian of Bangladesh’s liberation. The International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), established by the AL in March 2010 to prosecute individuals accused of committing atrocities during the 1971 liberation war, should be assessed in this context. While the quest to bring perpetrators to account is justifiable, the ICTs are not simply, or even primarily, a legal tool, but rather are widely perceived as a political one, primarily for use against the government’s Islamist opposition. In short, the governing AL is seen to be using the nation’s founding tragedy for self-serving political gains.

The AL needs to realise that the BNP’s marginalisation from mainstream politics could encourage anti-government activism to find more radical avenues, all the more so in light of its own increasingly authoritarian bent. Equally, the BNP would do well to abandon its alliances of convenience with violent Islamist groups and seek to revive agreement on a set of basic standards for multiparty democracy. A protracted and violent political crisis would leave Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia the ultimate losers, particularly if a major breakdown of law and order were to encourage the military to intervene; though there is as yet no sign of that, history suggests it is an eventuality not to be dismissed. The opportunities for political reconciliation are fast diminishing, as political battle lines become ever more entrenched. Both parties should restrain their violent activist base and take practical steps to reduce political tensions:

the AL government should commit to a non-repressive response to political dissent, rein in and ensure accountability for abuses committed by law enforcement entities, reverse measures that curb civil liberties and assertively protect minority communities against attack and dispossession of properties and businesses;

the AL should invite the BNP, at lower levels of seniority if needed, to negotiations aimed at reviving the democratic rules of the game, including electoral reform. It should also hold mayoral elections in Dhaka, a long-overdue constitutional requirement that would provide opportunities to begin that dialogue; and

the BNP should commit to non-violent political opposition; refrain from an alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami that is enhancing the Islamist opposition’s street power with little political return for the BNP; and instead demonstrate willingness to engage in meaningful negotiations with the AL to end a crisis that is undermining economic growth and threatening to subvert the political order.

Islamabad/Brussels, 9 February 2015

Protesters march in Dhaka during a general strike, held in response to the recent murder of Faysal Arefin, a publisher of books by critics of religious militancy in Bangladesh, 3 November 2015. REUTERS/Ashikur Rahman
Report 277 / Asia

Political Conflict, Extremism and Criminal Justice 
in Bangladesh

Political repression is reaching new highs in Bangladesh. The government’s abuse of rule of law institutions for political ends has created an atmosphere of injustice that is increasingly exploited by anti-state extremist groups. The gruesome recent killing of a secular blogger is just another tragic result of these groups' growing power and impunity.

Executive Summary

As the Awami League (AL) government’s political rivalry with the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) reaches new heights, so has its repression. At the same time, a deeply politicised, dysfunctional criminal justice system is undermining rather than buttressing the rule of law. Heavy-handed measures are denting the government’s legitimacy and, by provoking violent counter-responses, benefitting violent party wings and extremist groups alike. The government needs to recognise that it is in its interest to change course, lest it fail to either contain violent extremism or counter political threats. A key part of a more prudent course would be to depoliticise and strengthen all aspects of the criminal justice system, including the judiciary, so it can address the country’s myriad law and order challenges and help stall a democratic collapse. 

The political conflict between the AL and BNP has resulted in high levels of violence and a brutal state response. The government’s excesses against political opponents and critics include enforced disappearances, torture and extra-judicial killings. Police tasked with targeting the government’s rivals and an overstretched justice system compelled to prosecute opposition leaders and activists now also face a renewed threat from violent extremists. The permissive legal environment, however, is creating opportunities for extremist outfits to regroup, manifested in the killings of secular bloggers and foreigners and attacks on sectarian and religious minorities in 2015. The government’s reaction to rising extremism, including arrest and prosecution of several suspects without due process and transparency, is fuelling alienation that these groups can further exploit.

Reconciling with the opposition and hence stabilising the state requires both political compromises and an end to the repressive use of law enforcement agencies and abuse of the courts. Politicising the police and using elite forces, particularly the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), to silence political dissent, are laying the seeds of future violence. By concentrating on targeting the opposition, the police are failing to curb criminality; the prisons are overburdened by the mass arrests of opposition leaders and activists; and the judiciary, perceived as partisan for trials and sentences based on political grounds, is losing credibility. The result is a justice system that swings between two extremes: woefully slow and dysfunctional for ordinary cases and speedy, undermining due process, in politically charged ones.

Any effort to reform a dysfunctional criminal justice system, including by investing in training, equipping and otherwise modernising the police, prosecution and judiciary, will be insufficient unless it is also taken out of politics. Years of partisan recruitment, promotions and postings have polarised these institutions to the point that officials no longer conceal their allegiances. Partisanship tends to determine the kinds of complaints and cases that get filed and prioritised and even informs verdicts and sentences.

The problems surrounding delivery of justice are further compounded by legal mechanisms to silence civil society and prevent media scrutiny and parallel processes that undermine due process in politically charged cases. The deeply flawed International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), established in 2010 to prosecute individuals responsible for atrocities committed during the 1971 liberation war, is an important example of the dangers of using rule of law institutions for political ends. Perceptions of injustice are creating opportunities for extremist groups and fuelling political conflict. 

The BNP and its Jamaat-e-Islami ally marked the anniversary of the disputed 2014 elections with indiscriminately violent strikes and traffic blockades, which were matched brutally by the state. The BNP now appears less willing to resort to violence to unseat the government; its decision to re-enter the political mainstream gives the government an opportunity it should exploit by urgently resuming dialogue with the opposition. To demonstrate sincerity and as a first step, it should end use of the rule of law institutions to target opponents and silence critics. Accepting legitimate avenues of participation and dissent would also help regain some lost legitimacy and the trust of citizens in the state’s provision of both justice and security. So long as there is no independent court system to arbitrate disputes fairly, the parties are likely to continue taking those disputes to the streets, but a neutral judiciary could help defuse tensions by upholding fundamental principles and preventing executive excesses. The international community can help to promote political reconciliation by, in the U.S. and EU case, using economic levers to pressure Dhaka to respect civil and political rights, and in New Delhi’s by using close ties to urge the AL to allow the opposition legitimate political expression and participation. There is no time to lose. If mainstream dissent remains closed, more and more government opponents may come to view violence and violent groups as their only recourse.


To restore political stability and ensure security

To the Government of Bangladesh:

  1. Commit to accepting legitimate political opposition and dissent, including by ending use of the criminal justice system to target political critics; and respond positively to the BNP’s decision to refrain from violence and re-enter the political and constitutional mainstream through participation in the electoral process by reopening urgently a dialogue to end the destabilising political stalemate.

To the Opposition:

  1. Commit to peaceful opposition, including by preventing party activists from using violence to subvert the political order; and sever ties with political allies who use violence to destabilise the government. 

To the Higher Judiciary:

  1. Develop consistent judicial doctrine/interpretation upholding the right to a fair trial and restraining the executive branch from undermining fundamental constitutional rights and principles, including actions against civil society institutions that undermine their ability to function freely.

To respect the constitutional right to free speech and dissent

To the Government of Bangladesh:

  1. Withdraw all cases against journalists, human rights groups and other civil society actors that are based on vague and dubious grounds, such as expressing views deemed “derogatory” of public officials or against the “public interest”, and end press closures and raids on media offices.
  2. Withdraw the 2014 national broadcast policy and remove restrictions on online expression in the Information and Technology Act.

To the Higher Judiciary:

  1. Refrain from issuing contempt of court citations to media and other civil society representatives for criticising court judgments, and overturn unjustified contempt convictions in other courts, including the International Crimes Tribunal.

To ensure due process and end political interference in the justice system

To the Government of Bangladesh:

  1. Enforce the constitutional requirement for an independent judiciary by establishing a more transparent, consultative appointment process, including consultations with the bar councils and parliamentary endorsement.
  2. Avoid statements alleging the identity of those responsible for crimes while investigations are ongoing; and end the practice of presenting suspects to the media, rather than in court, as required by the constitution.

To the Higher Judiciary:

  1. Issue clear orders against any executive bodies or officials found to be interfering in the judicial process.
  2. Insist on the need for an adequately resourced and staffed Supreme Court secretariat as fundamental to achieving judicial independence; provide the necessary resources to and scrutinise the workings of the lower judiciary; and hold to account judges who fail to provide a fair trial.

To modernise the criminal justice system

To the Government of Bangladesh: 

  1. Introduce amendments to adapt the Code of Criminal Procedure 1898, Evidence Act 1872, Police Act 1861, Penal Code 1860 and the Jail Code to modern challenges, including by implementing Bangladesh Law Commission recommendations on increasing use of technology and forensic and other modern evidentiary standards in investigations and trials. 
  2. Professionalise the police, prosecution agencies and lower judiciary, including by introducing a merit-based selection and recruitment process, secure tenure and effective mechanisms to evaluate performance and check political interference. 
  3. Identify personnel, training and resource needs particularly for the Police Bureau of Investigation, while developing specialised investigation units for national- and district-level policing. 

To push for a broader political reform agenda

To the International Community: 

  1. Link some development assistance, and in the U.S. case the restoration of the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) facility, to demonstrable improvements in human rights, free speech and association and fair trial. 
  2. Use, in the case of India, its close relationship with the AL to urge the government to allow legitimate avenues of political expression and participation to the opposition.

Brussels, 11 April 2016