Human rights defenders in Bangladesh are at constant risk: An interview with Adilur Rahman Khan on Bangladeshi CSO Odhikar

Can you tell us a little bit about the mission and work of Odhikar?
Odhikar Logo BangladeshOdhikar was formed by a group of human rights activists who fought against Bangladesh’s autocratic regime and struggled to restore democracy. Together, the group initiated discussions underscoring the need to uphold the civil and political rights of the people of Bangladesh along with their social, cultural and economic rights. A decision was then made to form an organisation to advance such rights and on October 10, 1994, Odhikar (a Bengali word that means ‘rights’) came into being. Its aim was to create a wider monitoring and awareness raising system on the abuse of civil and political rights.

Odhikar’s mission is broad and includes the promotion of human rights through the introduction of participatory democracy and good governance as well as advocacy and lobbying for the incorporation and ratification of international human rights instruments into domestic human rights compliant laws. Odhikar also stands to fight impunity, promote justice and criminalise torture within Bangladesh and, through affiliated networks, at regional and international levels.

The organisation’s day to day work focuses on documenting, fact-finding, monitoring and researching human rights abuses that include enforced disappearances, custodial deaths, violence against women, torture, prison conditions, violations of freedom of expression, election monitoring and fostering mass awareness campaigns on rights and duties.

 Odhikar also continues to mobilise support among the members of its network and help enhance the institutional capabilities of individual groups, organisations and agencies on human rights issues through organising seminars, trainings, and workshops.

How would you describe the overall environment for civil society actors and human rights defenders in Bangladesh?
Since the beginning of 2012, a number of civil society members, journalists and political activists have been attacked by representatives of law enforcement agencies. Civil society protests and public meetings have been disrupted by the police. Meanwhile, new legislation is being proposed to control the activities of independent civil society groups, marking a dangerous decline in democratic freedoms in Bangladesh.

Human rights defenders in Bangladesh are at constant risk. They receive threats and intimidation from state actors, in particular, from security and intelligence agencies. The government has become increasingly repressive in its treatment of human rights defenders and civil society actors for their role in defending human rights. The government is also using police and other law enforcement agencies to harass dissident voices.

As an example, on 4 April 2012, Aminul Islam, a prominent trade union organiser with the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation and the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, was tortured and murdered after being abducted by members of law enforcement agencies. Days later, on 17 April 2012, Ilias Ali, Secretary of the Sylhet Division of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, also disappeared. Both individuals were reported to have been subjected to government intimidation prior to their disappearance.

There has been a growth in intimidation of human rights defenders, with rogue members of law enforcement agencies operating with impunity. Several members and staff of Odhikar too have experienced an intensification of harassment and unwarranted surveillance.

Bangladesh's Government is currently considering a law to restrict funding for civil society from international sources. Can you tell us about this proposed law and its current status?
The NGO Affairs Bureau, under the Prime Minister’s Office, drafted a proposed Bill, named the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act, 2012 that has been developed by amending the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Ordinance, 1978 (XLVI of 1978) which integrates the Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Ordinance, 1982 (XXXI of 1982), in order to regulate NGO activities. The Government is already applying the proposed Bill ‘Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act 2012’ unlawfully before it has been passed as an Act. Odhikar believes that the proposed law will violate the freedoms of expression and association; and will apply increased controls to human rights and voluntary organisations, in contravention of the Bangladeshi Constitution and the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

What support can international civil society offer to civil society colleagues in   Bangladesh working in extremely adverse circumstances?
International civil society can put pressure on the Government of Bangladesh by sending them urgent appeals, open letters or statements in favour of Bangladeshi civil society organisations and NGOs working in Bangladesh. International civil society should also unite for the Bangladeshi UPR Session in 2013.

Adilur Rahman Khan of Odhikar in BangladeshAdilur Rahman Khan is a practicing lawyer at the Supreme Court of Bangladesh who represents those whose rights have been abused by the actions of law enforcement agencies. He was part of a team instrumental in obtaining the release of detainees of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, who were detained for a number of years under the Special Powers Act 1974. Adil is a founding member and the Secretary of Odhikar, the Dhaka based human rights organisation. It monitors human rights violations by law enforcement agencies and addresses the question of their impunity. Adil believes in establishing equity and social justice.