CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organisations, is seriously concerned over the ongoing judicial harassment against human rights defenders Adilur Rahman Khan and ASM Nasiruddin Elan. They will face their next hearing on 24 November 2021. If found guilty, both might be sentenced to up to ten years of imprisonment.
These cases exemplify the risks faced by human rights defenders in Bangladesh for speaking up against abuses. The authorities must halt the persecution against them and ensure protection for those who conduct human rights work.
Adilur Rahman Khan, the Secretary of human rights organisation Odhikar and ASM Nasiruddin Elan, its Director, are at risk of being convicted of violating Section 57 of the draconian Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, 2006 for “publishing in electronic forms fake, obscene, prurient materials or materials defamatory to state or religion or an individual.”
The charge stems from a fact-finding report about extrajudicial killings by Bangladesh authorities issued by Odhikar in 2013. The report highlighted the death of 61 persons due to an armed operation conducted by law enforcement agencies around a protest on 5 and 6 May 2013 at Shapla Chattar in Motijheel, Dhaka.
Shortly after the report's release, Bangladesh authorities detained Khan and Elan for 62 and 25 days respectively, before releasing them on bail. Instead of dropping the investigation, the case continued and was transferred to the Cyber Tribunal of Dhaka in 2017. The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh rejected their appeal to dismiss the charges on 14 February 2021, and the trial opened on 5 October.
“The work of Adilur Rahman Khan and ASM Nasiruddin Elan from human rights group Odhikar in revealing severe human rights violations by authorities should not be criminalised. The government must drop these politically motivated charges against both human rights defenders immediately and unconditionally,” said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia Pacific Researcher.
CIVICUS is also concerned that the government has failed to uphold both defenders' human rights, causing them to suffer from both extreme physical and mental pressure. Since the investigation began in 2013, both have been facing harassment, attacks, surveillance and smear campaigns, together with other staff of Odhikar. Further, the NGO Affairs Bureau of the Government of Bangladesh has refused to renew the registration of Odhikar since 2015 and has frozen its bank account, hindering its operations. The court has also failed to uphold their rights to a fair trial as there is a lack of transparency on decisions and investigations made by the authorities.
“We stand in solidarity with the two human rights defenders and all other activists in Bangladesh facing criminalisation, threats and attacks for undertaking their work. The international community must stop turning a blind eye to the systematic violations by the Sheikh Hasina regime and calling the government out on these abuses,” added Josef Benedict.
The Digital Security Act, passed in October 2018 to replace the often-misused Information and Communication Technology Act, includes harsher provisions that have been used to penalize criticism of the government. The law gives security agencies the power to hold individuals indefinitely in pretrial detention. It has created a chilling effect among activists and journalists.
As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Bangladesh must respect, protect, and fulfil the rights of its people, including those critical of the government. CIVICUS calls for Bangladesh's Government to create an enabling environment for human rights defenders, organisations, activists, and journalists to undertake their work. The government must also repeal restrictive laws, such as the draconian Digital Security Act
Civic space in Bangladesh is rated as "Repressed" by the CIVICUS Monitor.