(New York) – Bangladeshi authorities should immediately drop criminal charges against two senior members of the leading human rights organization Odhikar, and end the surveillance and harassment of its workers both in Dhaka and around the country, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the International Commission of Jurists said today.
Odhikar published a report on security forces abuses in June 2013. The international community should speak up and press the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to end its harassment and intimidation of Odhikar.
Adilur Rahman Khan and Nasiruddin Elan, the secretary and director of Odhikar respectively, have been charged under section 57 of the Information and Technology (ICT) Act for publishing a report on violence and fatalities at the hands of government forces during a protest on May 5-6, 2013. The report alleged that 61 people were killed in the overnight protest, a figure the government vehemently denies. 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 initially denied bail during his first appearance in court on November 6. They are both now released on bail, pending a hearing on 22 January, 2014.
“With the politically motivated witch-hunt of Odhikar, Bangladeshi authorities are essentially shooting the messenger and saying that its security forces are above the law,” said Polly Truscott, South Asia director at Amnesty International. “When a credible human rights organization like Odhikar reports on alleged human rights violations, Bangladeshi authorities should listen instead of trying to silence an important voice. The government should ensure an impartial investigation, allowing for all sides to share information, and the effective protection of witnesses.”
Human Rights Watch’s own investigations into the demonstration on May 5-6, 2013, by the Islamist Hefazat-e-Islami movement found at least 50 dead and more than 2,000 injured. Security forces confronted tens of thousands of protesters. While some police efforts at dispersing crowds appeared to adhere to international standards, in other cases the police use of force was unlawful.
Since it published its report, Odhikar has reported regular visits to their Dhaka offices by security forces, white vans stationed outside the gates, and increased surveillance of staff throughout the country. The security forces raided Odhikar’s offices on August 11, 2013, taking away computers containing potentially sensitive material such as the identities of witnesses.
The Nongovernmental Organizations Affairs bureau, which is in the Prime Minister’s Office, has been withholding funding for Odhikar’s projects – including for projects on which it had already given its approval. The withholding of funds has been a standard way in which the government clamps down on the activities of civil society whose work is critical of government activities.
“Democracies should not attempt to shut down criticism by locking up human rights activists,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Dropping these charges and accepting the rights of civil society to function would go a long way to establishing proper dialogue between all sides in Bangladesh’s fractured political space.”The human rights organizations pointed out that many sections of the ICT Act, particularly section 57 under which Elan and Khan are charged, violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Bangladesh is a state party.
The offenses prescribed are vague and overbroad; the restrictions imposed on freedom of opinion and expression go beyond what is permissible under article 19(3) of the ICCPR; and the restrictions are not necessary and proportional to achieving a legitimate purpose.
The rights organizations said that under the ICCPR, everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, to receive, and to impart information. As the United Nations Human Rights Committee has consistently underscored, laws restricting this right must never be invoked to prosecute human rights defenders for disseminating information of legitimate public interest.
As the United Nations Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups, and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Declaration on Human Rights Defenders) makes clear under article 12, the state must take all necessary measures to ensure the protection of human rights defenders from any violence, threat, retaliation, pressure, or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of the legitimate exercise of rights, including the freedom of expression.“Charging Khan and Elan with vague and overbroad offenses for a report which the government cannot even legitimately claim is false is no more than a blatant attempt to block criticism,” said Sam Zarifi, Asia director at the International Commission of Jurists. “Not only must the charges against Khan and Elan be dropped immediately, but the authorities need to repeal or amend the ICT Act to bring it into conformity with Bangladesh’s international obligations.”