Prominent Bangladeshi civil society activist and Secretary of Odhikar, Adilur Rahman Khan, speaks to CIVICUS about growing restriction on civil society in Bangladesh and his continued judicial harassment under the Cyber Crimes Tribunal.
1. Today marks one year since you and your colleague Mr ASM Nasiruddin Elan were charged with violating the widely contested Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Act. Can you tell us why you believe these charges were brought against you and where the case stands today?
On June 11th 2013, our organisation Odhikar published a fact finding report documenting the violent crackdown on demonstrators by government forces which began in the capital, Dhaka at 2:00am on May 5th 2013. After this ‘operation’ the government only reported 11 fatal casualties during the two day demonstration.
Odhikar carried out its own fact finding mission after the incident and documented 61 deaths. When the Ministry of Information requested the names and addresses of the families of those killed, Odhikar, fearing state reprisals against the victims’ families, committed only to providing the list to an independent commission set up by the government to investigate the use of violence during the protests. The Ministry, however, did not respond to Odhikar’s request. At 10:20 pm on the night of August 10, 2013, I was picked up by men outside my home claiming to be from the Detective Branch of Police (DB) but they did not produce any identification or a warrant. Later, at the Detective Branches’ office, I was questioned about the fact-finding report, the list of deceased victims and Odhikar’s human rights defenders. I was sent to Kashimpur Jail-1 from DB remand on 13 August 2013, while my colleague Elan was sent to Kashimpur Jail-2 after he surrendered before the court in November 2013.
According to the charges filed against us, we were arrested for, among other things, falsifying information, inciting violence and marring the image of the state due to the fact finding report. However, Odhikar carries out legitimate human rights work and acts as a voice for all victims of human rights violations in Bangladesh. As its Secretary, my activities have always been monitored by law enforcement agencies and I believe that the detention of Elan and Iisa flagrant attempt to stop Odhikar’s human rights activities.
At present, proceedings of the case brought against Elan and I in the Cyber Crimes Tribunal have been stayed by the High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh. The next date for hearing the matter in the High Court Division is 04 September 2014 where we expect the High Court to rule on the stay order.
2. Since being released on bail have you been subjected to government surveillance and harassment and how has this impacted Odhikar’s work?
The Odhikar office and my home have been under surveillance since the beginning of 2013. However, while previously only the staff and the activities of Odhikar were monitored, throughout the trial and my incarceration men in plain clothes have watched the office and my home and followed members of my family when they leave the house. This harassment has caused great mental pressure on my family and the Odhikar staff. Since being released on bail, the surveillance has continued.
Furthermore, the NGO Affairs Bureau and the Anti-Corruption Commission began to harass Odhikar immediately after the trial when the Cyber Crimes Tribunal was stayed, including requesting information already submitted to them and asking for lists of our human rights defenders and other unnecessary information. The NGO Affairs Bureau, which is under the Prime Minister’s Office, has blocked all of our funds from international sources, including the European Union, the Royal Netherlands Embassy and the Finnish NGO Foundation for Human Rights (KIOS). As a result, we have been forced have to let go of seven members of our staff.
3. Following your arrest and since national elections held in January 2014, the government appears to have continued its campaign to silence civil society and independent dissent in the country. Can you tell us about the recent legislative and extra-legal measures taken by the government to restrict civil society and the media?
The government has taken a number of repressive measures after it came to power through the Parliamentary Elections in December 2008. Under the current government, human rights defenders and journalists are facing heightened persecution and opposition voices are increasingly being silenced. Accordingly, I think it is fair to say that Bangladesh is increasingly becoming a police State. For instance, in August 2009, the government unilaterally cancelled Odhikar’s Torture and OPCAT programme. The authorities also arrested the Acting Editor of the popular pro-opposition daily Amar Desh twice in 2010 and again in 2013 (he is currently in jail with over 60 cases against him and is reportedly being denied proper medical treatment while in detention).
The government has further escalated its campaign to undermine the independent media and the free flow of information, including recently banning all the pro-opposition TV Channels including Channel 1, Diganta TV and Islamic TV. In addition, the government has recently enacted a Broadcasting Policy to suppress all dissenting voices. Under the decree, it is prohibited to criticise or talk about the activities of law enforcement agencies or the Army on air.
Finally, the Cabinet has recently approved a draft Bill to allow for the impeachment of Supreme Court Judges, who will then come under the direct control of the present Parliament. As the Judges are already recruited on the basis of their political allegiance, this will further put them in the ruling party fold.
4. How can the international community offer added support to your case and civil society groups in the country?
I strongly believe international visibility is vital to supporting human rights in Bangladesh and for protecting human rights defenders working here. Bangladesh, which is experiencing severe democratic backsliding, is still not on the radar of the international human rights community as a country of concern or priority. Principally, I would encourage UN human rights mechanisms, including the UN Human Rights Council and relevant Special Rapporteurs, to take concerted action to proactively address the deteriorating human rights situation.
Adilur Rahman Khan is the Secretary of Odhikar (a Bangla word that means ‘rights’) based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Odhikar came into being in 1994 with the aim to create a wider monitoring and awareness raising system on the abuse of civil and political rights. The principal objectives of the organisation are to raise the awareness of human rights and its various abuses, on the one hand and to create a vibrant democratic system through election monitoring on the other. The organisation also performs policy advocacy to address the current human rights situation. Odhikar has no field or branch offices. Instead, it has trained more than 300 people all over the country to be human rights defenders, who are relied upon for information outside Dhaka.
Interview conducted on 4 September 2014.
To take action on Mr Khan’s case please visit CIVICUS’ Civil Society Behind Bars Campaign.