CIVICUS interview with Saira Rahman

Saira Rahman, wife of detained activist Adilur Rahman Khan speaks to CIVICUS about the circumstances surrounding his arrest and detention and the on-going persecution of his Bangladesh-based organisation, Odhikar.

Why are the authorities targeting Adil?
On June 11 2013, Odhikar published a fact finding report documenting the violent crackdown on demonstrators by government forces which began in the capital, Dhaka at 2 am on May 5 2013. Following the protests, the government only reported 11 fatal casualties during the two day demonstration.

In stark contrast to the government’s official statement, Odhikar documented 61 persons killed that night. While the Ministry of Information requested the names and addresses of the families of those killed, Odhikar, fearing state reprisals against the families of the victims, 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.

The government has arrested Adil, who is the driving force behind Odhikar, on specious charges including falsifying information, inciting violence and marring the image of the state. However, the charges against Adil undoubtedly stem from his legitimate human rights work including protecting the identities of individuals willing to speak to Odhikar about the May demonstrations.

Have there been any indications in the past that Adil is in the authorities’ sights?
Adil works under the constant gaze of the government, including routine harassment and surveillance. His phone is tapped and his house and office are watched by the national security forces and intelligence services.

On August 11, directly following Adil’s arrest, security forces raided Odhikar’s office, seizing computers containing sensitive information about victims of human rights abuses recorded by Odhikar staff, including lists of individuals who spoke to Odhikar following the May demonstrations. Odhikar is deeply concerned that this information may be misused to persecute individuals who courageously spoke out against the government.

Do you think Adil’s case is part of a larger crackdown on civil society and democratic freedoms in Bangladesh?
Odhikar is the only organisation vocal against human rights abuses, irrespective of which party is in power. Due to its independent, rights-based stance, my belief is that Odhikar is the only CSO perpetually targeted by the government.

Currently, television channels in Bangladesh known to be pro-government are broadcasting programs extremely critical of Odhikar and are further attempting to paint Adil as pro-opposition. Several guests on these shows are colouring Adil as a supporter of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and even a Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist political party in the country.

Ironically, the Awami League, the current governing party, also used Odhikar’s material as evidence of government malfeasance when they were in the opposition.

What message would you like to share with international community and concerned civil society groups?
Odhikar works for the people of Bangladesh. It has done so with growing credibility for the last 19 years. Human rights abuses under the present government have been increasing and the level of impunity in law enforcement and lack of independence of the judiciary make the protection of human rights even more challenging. While the Odhikar office was raided and computers with important information were taken, Odhikar staff still continue to come to work every day.

Thank you for your stalwart support and please continue to stand by Odhikar, Adil and the people of Bangladesh as we struggle to defend and promote human rights in the country!

About Odhikar:
In October 1994, Odhikar (a Bangla word that means ‘rights’) came into being 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 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.