Odhikar shut down: Govt creating ‘atmosphere of fear’ for human rights groups

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Odhikar shut down: Govt creating ‘atmosphere of fear’ for human rights groups Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) personnel patrol along a street in Ukhia, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Oct. 7, 2020.

The Bangladesh government’s intention in shutting down a leading human rights advocacy group, Odhikar, was to create a climate of fear for non-governmental organizations who raise concerns about the rights situation in the country, activists said on Tuesday.

The government’s NGO Affairs Bureau, which falls under the Prime Minister’s Office, this week refused to renew Odhikar’s license to operate, stating that it has “tarnished the image of the state to the world” and published “misleading” information on alleged extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.

Odhikar is among local organizations that have been at the forefront of documenting alleged human rights abuses by the Rapid Action Battalion, an elite police unit which became the target of sanctions imposed by the United States in December.

The government has been furious with Odhikar and other NGOs since Washington sanctioned RAB, according to Nur Khan, a former executive director of Ain-O-Salish Kendra (ASK), another leading Bangladeshi human rights group.

“The NGO affairs bureau’s denial of renewing the registration of Odhikar was a message to human rights bodies and journalists not to report on human rights abuses. They want to create an atmosphere of fear among them,” Khan told BenarNews.

“Here, the main message is: ‘If anyone criticizes the human rights situation, they would meet similar consequences.’”

On Tuesday, Odhikar’s executive director was not immediately available for comment.

Saad Hammadi, a South Asia campaigner for Amnesty International, said via Twitter: “Deregistration of Odhikar in Bangladesh clearly demonstrates the government’s anger about the credibility the human rights organization enjoys internationally.”

Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, the Bangladesh’s home minister, told BenarNews that his ministry had nothing to do with Odhikar’s license cancellation.

“This is completely the business of the NGO Affairs Bureau under the Prime Minister’s Office,” he told BenarNews.

The June 5 order by the NGO Affairs Bureau that annulled the renewal of Odhikar’s license did not specifically mention RAB. Nevertheless, the U.S. Treasury Department, in announcing sanctions on the force, accused it of carrying out more than 600 enforced disappearances and a similar number of extrajudicial killings in the past 12 years.

“[M]isleading information about various extrajudicial killings, including alleged disappearances and murders, has been published on the organization's own website www.odhikar.org, creating various issues against Bangladesh by the organization named ‘Odhikar’; which has seriously tarnished the image of the state to the world,” the order states.

RAB, founded in 2004, is tasked with internal security, intelligence gathering related to criminal activities, and government-directed investigations. On Dec. 10, U.S. officials issued sanctions against RAB and seven serving and former officials over allegations of violations of human rights, a move that angered Bangladeshi government officials.

Odhikar has been a registered NGO since March 1995. It works on a range of human rights issues, including press freedom, workers’ rights and voters’ rights.

NGO’s lawyer: ‘Totally unethical’

The government’s decision to shut Odhikar came days before a High Court Bench was to hold another hearing on a writ petition by the rights group that challenged the inaction of the NGO Affairs Bureau on its renewal application, said Ruhul Amin Bhuiyan, Odhikar’s lawyer.

Odhikar had in October 2014 applied to the NGO Affairs Bureau to extend its registration that was scheduled to expire on March 15, 2015, Bhuiyan said. The NGO office had, for more than seven years, neither rejected nor renewed the registration – until this week.

“The NGO affairs bureau did not take any decision on renewal of Odhikar’s registration. We filed a writ petition. The renewal issue has been under trial. But they suddenly issued a letter turning down the renewal application a few days before the High Court was scheduled to hear our writ petition,” Bhuiyan told BenarNews.

“This is totally unethical. The NGO affairs bureau has not given us the chance to defend our position before giving such a decision,” he said.

Bhuiyan said Odhikar had submitted all the necessary documentation to the NGO Affairs Bureau for renewal of the registration.

“Odhikar is one of the handful organizations that work with United Nations agencies. They are a reputed organization. They should get registration,” he said.

According to Mizanur Rahman, a former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, the government erred in shutting down Odhikar.

“The NGO Affairs Bureau says Odhikar has tarnished the image of the state. But they do not understand that depriving Odhikar of getting registration will tarnish the image of the state and the government more. This will bring a bad image of the country overseas,” Rahman told BenarNews.

The government should understand that the duty of human rights bodies is to defend human rights, and they must be allowed to do their job, he said.

“Now, Odhikar will struggle to continue its operation. They will not be eligible to get foreign funding as registration with the NGO Affairs Bureau is needed to get foreign funding,” he said.

“If they can manage local funding, they can continue preparing human rights reports. But practically, without foreign funding, I think, it is very difficult for Odhikar to continue working as a human rights organization.”


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.