Seventy-two human rights organisations, the United States and European Parliament are among the members of the international community to express concern at the jailing of Bangladesh human rights defenders Adilur Rahman Khan and ASM Nasiruddin Elan on Thursday.
The United States embassy in Dhaka expressed their concern, saying that judgement against Adilur and director Elan might further undermine the willingness of human rights defenders and civil society to play their vital democratic role.
In a statement, the US said that it strongly supports the role that human rights defenders and civil society organisations play in promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms.
For decades, Odhikar has monitored and reported on the human rights situation in Bangladesh, regardless of who was in power, said the US.
‘We continue to support freedom of expression and a vibrant civil society as essential elements of democracy and oppose attempts to limit the exercise of those fundamental and basic rights,’ said the US statement.
In a packed courtroom in Dhaka, the Cyber Tribunal judge, AM Julfikar Hayat, jailed rights group Odhikar secretary Adilur and director Elan for two years each and also fined them Tk 10,000 each or an additional month in jail.
They were convicted in a case filed with Gulshan police station in 2013 under Section 57 (2) of the Information and Communication Technology Act 2006 following their fact-finding report on the number of deaths during the police drive against Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh activists in a demonstration at Shapla Chattar in Dhaka in May 5-6, 2013.
After the verdict, internationally acclaimed human rights defender Mohammad Nur Khan said that with the verdict, it would be tougher for them to continue human rights activism in Bangladesh.
In a joint resolution on Thursday night, the European Parliament expressed concern over the human rights situation in Bangladesh.
The resolution urged the Bangladesh government to immediately and unconditionally drop all charges against Odhikar representatives and reinstate its registration.
‘We stand with [Adilur Rahman] Khan and Elan and urge the authorities to release them immediately and unconditionally, as they have been detained solely for their human rights work. The authorities should reverse their convictions and ensure they are able to continue their human rights documenting and reporting without fear of reprisals,’ 72 global, regional, and domestic rights groups said in a joint statement hours after the convictions of Adilur and Elan.
In their joint statement, the 72 rights groups noted that following the 2013 publication of Odhikar’s fact-finding report documenting extrajudicial killings during a protest, both defenders were arbitrarily detained—Adilur for 62 days and Elan for 25 days.
After being released on bail, they continued to face prosecution and judicial harassment on trumped-up allegations that their 2013 report was ‘fake, distorted, and defamatory.’
On June 5, 2022, the government’s NGO Affairs Bureau officially turned down Odhikar’s application for renewal, stating that the organisation’s publications have ‘seriously tarnished the image of the state to the world’.
It said that the Bangladesh government then continued to besmirch the organisation publicly, even criticising and questioning the credibility of the 2022 US country report on human rights for relying on Odhikar’s documentation.
The joint statement read that United Nations human rights experts had expressed their concerns over the government’s actions, stating that ‘the defamation of Bangladeshi-based human rights organisations by high-profile public figures is a clear attempt to undermine their credibility, reputation, and human rights work in the country’.
The signatories of the statement include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Anti-Death Penalty Asian Network, Asia Alliance Against Torture, Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), Asian Network for Free Elections, Association of Family Members of the Disappeared in Sri Lanka, Asociacion Pro Busqueda de Ninas y Ninos Desaparecidos in El Salvador, Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha in India, Belarusian Solidarity Foundation, Bir Duino in Kyrgyzstan, Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, Capital Punishment Justice Project in Australia, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, International Federation for Human Rights, Robert F Kennedy Human Rights, The Awakening in Pakistan, the Indonesian Human Rights Monitor, Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition in United States, and World Organisation Against Torture.