Bangladesh puts human rights work on trial

The ongoing prosecution in Bangladesh of two leading human rights activists is a threat to all independent human rights work in the country.

Bangladesh puts human rights work on trial
Adilur Rahman Khan, secretary of human rights organisation, Odhikar in detention following his arrest in August 2013 for digital security offences. The director, ASM Nasiruddin Elan, was also arrested. Photo: Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/Alamy Live News

The ongoing criminal trial of two men who run one of Bangladesh’s leading human rights organisations, is neither just an abuse of prosecutorial power, nor just an attempt to bring down a group whose work has embarrassed the government. It is also an attack on all human rights work within the country, and could have serious implications for any person or organisation investigating the role of Bangladeshi state agencies under the current Awami League government.

The prosecution of ASM Nasiruddin Elan and Adilur Rahman Khan, the director and secretary respectively of the group Odhikar involves an investigation report the organisation published on its website in June 2013, concerning alleged killings by the law enforcement agencies following a rally organised by the highly conservative Islamist group Hefajat-e-Islam in the centre of the capital city of Dhaka.

In the report — which in this columnist’s view is unnecessarily sympathetic to some of Hefajat’s social and political objectives — the human rights organisation stated that, “Fact finding of Odhikar has, to date, found the names of 61 people who were killed and many more injured. However, actual numbers are very difficult to ascertain in the present repressive political situation.”

The police dispute that 61 people were killed, and claim that Odhikar’s “fake” allegation of the numbers of dead created “extreme discontent amongst devout Muslims” resulting in a “deterioration of  the law and order situation” and “the image of the state being tarnished at home and abroad.” This, it argues, amounts to an offence under section 57 of the Information and Communication and Technology Act (2006), which makes it a crime to publish material on the internet that causes or creates the possibility of “deterioration in law and order” or “prejudices  the  image  of  the state.”

The focus of the prosecution is the human rights organisation’s assessment of numbers of people who were killed — with the government having only acknowledged at the time that 11 people were killed — including one police officer. So, let us consider the factual basis of Odhikar’s claim.

The government never set up any kind of independent inquiry into the rally and the consequent deaths — so, it is difficult for it to claim with any level of authority that Odhikar’s numbers are inaccurate. In a televised interview Dipu Moni, the foreign minister at the time, rejected the idea of holding an inquiry, telling Al Jazeera that this was not necessary “because the government or most of the people in the country don’t even think there was any controversy with the matter.” As bizarre an argument for not holding an inquiry if ever there was one!

Moreover, important corroboration of Odhikar’s figures comes from the international human rights watchdog, Human Rights Watch, which in its own report published in August 2013 concluded that at least 58 people were killed: “Based on hospital logs, eyewitness accounts, and well-sourced media reports, HRW believes that at least 58 people died on May 5 and 6, seven of whom were members of the security forces. However it is likely the death toll was even higher. It is imperative that the government investigate all claims of people still reported as missing. While some could be in hiding, it is possible that others were killed .”

58 is only 3 people less than Odhikar’s claim of 61 — and as HRW notes it was “likely the death toll was even higher” than 58 with people reported as missing who in its view could be “killed.”

In a case that questions the number of deaths, it is notable that the police charge sheet against the two human rights defenders does not mention this HRW report, though of course this is not surprising as it is highly disapprobative of the prosecution case.

Instead, the police focus on a list of 61 names found in a computer seized from the Odhikar office when the two men were arrested on August 10th, 2013, claiming that it contained the following errors: on five occasions, the same person was named twice; four people were still alive; one person died of a heart attack; and the details of seven people were not correct. If true, this would be  a total of 17 names.

Odhikar says that the list which the authorities found in its computer was not their final list of those killed — simply a working document — but let us just assume (for the sake of argument) that this was indeed the final list and the human rights organisation had made these mistakes. If so, this would mean that the police case against Odhikar amounts to claiming that 44 people were killed, not 61. The prosecution seems to be suggesting that Odhikar’s report stating that 61 people were killed created the possibility of a “deterioration in law and order” and “prejudiced the image of the state” — though  had they concluded that only 44 were killed, there would be no offence. This is simply preposterous.

Moreover, the list of 61 names found on the computer was not put on the internet or distributed electronically — so how, one wonders, could this list even form the basis of a prosecution under digital security laws?

At the very worst, the criticism made by the government is that Odhikar’s report contained mistakes — though even this allegation is dubious in the light of the corroborating HRW report. Yet it is this very government claim which makes  the prosecution against Elan and Rahman particularly dangerous and concerning. The state is effectively saying to human rights organisations in the country: publish a report that we do not agree with, and you will be prosecuted under offences which are so broad — namely, creating the possibility of “a deterioration in law and order” or  “prejudicing the image of the state” — that conviction is all but guaranteed. (Similar offences exist under the Digital Security Act 2018)

In a world outside of the authoritarianism of the current Awami League government, it would not be Odhikar’s human rights report that could ever be presumed an offence. Instead if there was anything that really does “prejudice the image of the Bangladesh state” it was this very decision to investigate and prosecute a human rights organisation for producing a fact-based report whose conclusions have been supported by a renowned international organisation.●

David Bergman (@TheDavidBergman) — a journalist based in Britain — is Editor, English of Netra News.