Bangladesh: Stop Targeting Odhikar and Its Leadership. Respect the Fundamental Rights to Freedom of Association and Expression
Bangladeshi authorities must end reprisals against Odhikar and its leadership and respect the fundamental rights to freedom of association and expression. Those working to document and expose human rights violations should be able to conduct their important work without fear of harassment, intimidation, and reprisals.
The case of human rights organization Odhikar is reflective of the ongoing harassment and targeting of human rights defenders and organizations in Bangladesh. Since 2014, Odhikar’s application for renewal of registration with the Non-Governmental Organization Affairs Bureau (NGOAB) remained pending until it was deregistered in June 2022. In the letter denying its renewal, the NGOAB accused Odhikar of publishing “misleading information,” “seriously [tarnishing] the image of the state to the world,” and “[creating] various issues against Bangladesh.”
Furthermore, Odhikar’s Secretary Adilur Rahman Khan and Director ASM Nasiruddin Elan were arbitrarily detained in 2013 for 62 days and 25 days, respectively, after publishing a fact-finding report on extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh. They continue to face judicial harassment in this case at the Cyber Tribunal of Dhaka, based on trumped-up charges for allegedly publishing “fake, distorted and defamatory” information. After years of stalling, the government accelerated hearings in their case especially following the designation of US sanctions against the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and its officials in December 2021. They have appeared at the Cyber Tribunal for all scheduled hearings, of which over a dozen since December 2021 did not proceed as planned – either because the judge did not appear or was not prepared, or because the prosecution witnesses failed to appear. Their trial has been marred with violations of due process, including the defense not being provided with prior information on the prosecution witnesses.
On April 5, 2023, at a hearing during which the prosecution witnesses failed to appear, Cyber Tribunal Judge A.M. Julfikar Hayat closed the examination of witnesses to proceed to the next step of examining the accused, in accordance with Section 342 of the Code of Criminal Procedure of 1898. After three hearings where the judge was not prepared for the examination of the accused, the prosecutor submitted an application requesting further investigation to which the defense objected. On May 15, 2023, the judge overruled the defense’s objections and granted the prosecution’s application for further investigation without specifying what component of the case will be subject to further investigation. The judge also ordered three international observers from the foreign missions of Switzerland, the UN, and the US to leave the court.
Other human rights organizations and experts have similarly condemned the targeting of Odhikar and its leadership. For instance, last December, UN human rights experts wrote a letter to the government of Bangladesh, expressing concern over the harassment and intimidation of Odhikar and Khan. In its response, the government accused Khan of “[playing] victimhood by fabricating a story involving law enforcement [agencies], intelligence [agencies,] etc.”
Such responses by the government disparaging Odhikar and its leaders instead of addressing the human rights violations that they have exposed have become routine. On March 21, 2023, Bangladesh State Minister for Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam criticized and questioned the credibility of the US Department of State’s 2022 Country Report on Human Rights Practices: Bangladesh, which referred to reprisals against Odhikar. Alam claimed that reports relying on Odhikar’s work lacked credibility as the organization is not registered to operate in Bangladesh.
We remind the government of Bangladesh that an organization does not have to be registered or licensed to exercise its rights to freedom of expression and of association in accordance with the country’s international and national human rights obligations. Odhikar is a reputable organization that has been defending human rights and democracy in Bangladesh for 28 years. Through its longstanding collaboration with the UN and various international and regional human rights organizations, Odhikar continues to provide reliable information on human rights violations across the country. Regardless of its registration status, Odhikar retains the right to freely associate and continue its human rights work.
Besmirching Odhikar and its leaders is but one example in the troubling context of authorities refusing to acknowledge their human rights violations and silencing those who speak out. The Bangladeshi government must ensure an enabling environment for organizations, address documented human rights violations, and hold perpetrators accountable.
We condemn the criminalization of Khan and Elan and urge the government to immediately and unconditionally drop all charges against them. We reiterate that ensuring and enabling civic space is necessary for a functioning democracy, especially in the lead up to the January 2024 general election.
AfricanDefenders (Pan African Human Rights Defenders Network)
Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network (ADPAN)
Asia Alliance Against Torture (A3T)
Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)
Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD)
Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
Bir Duino, Kyrgyzstan
Bytes for All (B4A), Pakistan
Capital Punishment Justice Project (CPJP)
Center for Constitutional Governance (CCG)
Center for Human Rights and Development (CHRD), Mongolia
Centre for the Sustainable Use of Natural and Social Resources (CSNR), India
CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
Front Line Defenders
Indonesia Legal Aid Foundation – Yayasan Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Indonesia (YLBHI)
INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre (INFORM), Sri Lanka
International Coalition Against Enforced Disappearances (ICAED)
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
International Legal Initiative Public Foundation (ILI Foundation), Kazakhstan
International Service for Human Rights
Karapatan Alliance Philippines (KARAPATAN), the Philippines
Law and Society Trust (LST), Sri Lanka
Martin Ennals Foundation
Medical Action Group (MAG), the Philippines
National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), Pakistan
People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD), South Korea
Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA)
Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP)
The Advocates for Human Rights
The Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN)
Think Centre, Singapore
Women's Rehabilitation Centre (WOREC), Nepal
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders