(New York) –Bangladeshi authorities should immediately stop legal proceedings against two prominent activists with Odhikar, a leading Bangladeshi human rights group, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should release Nasiruddin Elan, the group’s director, who was denied bail and jailed in Dhaka on November 6, 2013.
Adilur Rahman Khan, the group’s secretary, is also facing charges. The cases were brought against the activists for their reporting on human rights abuses by government security forces, and therefore violate freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Bangladeshi authorities should be investigating the security force abuses that Odhikar reported on, not filing cases that violate rights against the messengers,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The charges against Elan and Khan appear to be an effort to silence critics, particularly ahead of the Bangladesh national elections.”
Elan and Khan are charged under section 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure and section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT Act), Odhikar told Human Rights Watch. The activists are accused of falsely reporting human rights abuses by government security forces during mass demonstrations by the Islamist Hefazat-e-Islami movement in Dhaka in May. The case is being heard before the cybercrimes tribunal, which was especially constituted under the ICT Act to hear this case.
Khan was arrested on August 11 and detained for 62 days before the High Court overruled the lower courts and granted him bail. Police also raided the Odhikar offices and confiscated computers and other materials. Elan was denied bail during his first appearance in court on November 6. Instead of arresting Odhikar staff, the government should open an independent investigation into the allegations of excessive use of force to disperse the Hefazat demonstration, Human Rights Watch said.
An August Human Rights Watch report on the topic, Blood on the Streets: The Use of Excessive Force During Bangladesh Protests, found that while some efforts at dispersing crowds on May 5 and 6 appeared to adhere to international standards, security forces had also used unlawful force in other instances, leaving at least 50 people dead and more than 2,000 injured. The government has not responded to letters from Human Rights Watch about these events.
The provision for denying bail for offenses under the ICT Act is of particular concern, Human Rights Watch said. The amendments were passed by parliament in September, well after authorities brought initial charges against Khan and Elan. International law prohibits the application of new criminal laws and procedures retroactively. In particular, article 15 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bangladesh is a state party, prohibits such retrospective application.
“The law, before the September amendments, was already overly broad and vague, capable of misuse to silence critics,” Adams said. “The new amendmentsallow the government to keep these critics locked up through pretrial and trial phases, and to eventually lock them up for longer terms. This is nothing but a witch hunt against people the government doesn’t want to listen to.”