CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation and the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) are extremely alarmed by the decision of the government to arbitrarily revoke the registration of Odhikar, a leading human rights organisation in Bangladesh. This move is another blow to civil society and human rights defenders who have been facing systematic repression by the Sheikh Hasina regime.
Odhikar was founded in 1994 by a group of human rights activists and the organisation’s work includes documentation of human rights violations and enforced disappearances allegedly conducted by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) police unit as well as engagement with international human rights mechanisms.
On 5 June, an order issued by the NGO Affairs Bureau, a body regulating non-governmental organisations under the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, cancelled Odhikar’s request to renew its registration. The decision to not renew the registration stemmed from an unproven allegation that the organisation published misleading information about human rights violations and extrajudicial killings that further tarnished the government's reputation. The request for renewal of Odhikar’s registration had been pending since March 2015 with the NGO Affairs Bureau, resulting in the organisation facing significant hurdles in conducting its legitimate human rights work.
Odhikar had filed an application, in accordance with the law, in September 2014, seeking renewal of its registration, which the NGO Affairs Bureau has kept pending since then. Odhikar’s president Prof. C. R. Abrar filed a writ petition (number: 5402 of 2019) at the High Court in May 2019, challenging the NGO Affairs Bureau’s failure to renew the registration. The High Court heard the writ petition and issued an order (Rule Nisi) against the NGO Affairs Bureau as to why the registration should not be renewed in accordance with the law. It also ordered the respondents to respond to the order within two weeks on 13 May 2019.
Over the last three years, the NGO Affairs Bureau did not respond to the High Court’s Rule. After the United States Treasury Department designated sanctions against the RAB and six of its top commanders for serious human rights crimes in December 2021 the government started blaming Odhikar for the sanctions and brought the previous writ petition to the High Court on 1st of March 2022 for a hearing.
The cancellation of Odhikar’s registration is another shameful stain to the already appalling human rights record of Bangladesh. It sends a chilling message that civil society groups and human rights defenders who speak up on human rights issues will be intimidated and silenced. The government must reverse this egregious decision and instead take steps to create an enabling environment for civil society to undertake their work without reprisals
The government of Bangladesh has also attempted to undermine Odhikar by going after its leaders. Human rights defenders, Adilur Rahman Khan and ASM Nasiruddin Elan, both the Secretary and the Director of Odhikar, are facing allegations of violating Section 57 of the 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 accusations stem from a fact-finding report about extrajudicial killings by Bangladesh authorities issued by Odhikar in 2013. In the report, Odhikar highlighted the deaths of 61 persons due to an armed operation conducted by security forces around a protest on 5 and 6 May 2013 at Shapla Chattar in Motijheel, Dhaka. They were arbitrarily detained for respectively 62 and 25 days prior to being released on bail.
The judicial harassment against Odhikar and its staff exemplify the dangerous environment faced by human rights defenders in Bangladesh who seek to expose human rights abuses perpetrated by the Bangladesh regime and to demand accountability on behalf of the victims. Journalists, including those in exile have been criminalised, attacked and vilified. The draconian Digital Security Act (DSA) is used against individuals who simply criticise powerful people on social media and who document torture, ill-treatment and enforced disappearances.
As the state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the authorities must respect, protect and fulfil the right to freedom of association and other fundamental freedoms including those that belong to human rights defenders. The harassment against Odhikar is clearly a violation of their international human rights obligations.
Therefore, we urge the international community to speak up and call on the government of Bangladesh to halt all forms of judicial harassment against Odhikar, to revoke its decision to cancel the organisation's registration and drop all charges against Adilur Rahman Khan and ASM Nasiruddin Elan. Further sanctions must be imposed if it fails to comply.
Civic space in Bangladesh is rated as "Repressed" by the CIVICUS Monitor.