Bangladesh sentences top human rights activists to prison amid outcry

Ahammad Foyez
Bangladesh sentences top human rights activists to prison amid outcry Adilur Rahman Khan, a leader of Odhikar, a Bangladeshi human rights advocacy group, looks on outside a court in Dhaka where he and a colleague were sentenced to two years in prison, Sept. 14, 2023.
Munir uz Zaman/AFP

A Bangladesh court sentenced two leaders of a prominent human rights group to two years in prison each on Thursday for violating a now-defunct internet law by reporting about a high death toll from a crackdown on protesters in 2013.    

Their Odhikar organization is at the forefront of local efforts by rights advocates to draw worldwide attention to alleged government repression. 

A.M. Julfikar Hayat, a Dhaka Cyber Tribunal judge, delivered the verdict and sentence to Adilur Rahman Khan, Odhikar’s head, and A.S.M. Nasiruddin Elan, one of its directors, in a case filed under a notorious law that no longer exists.

“I did not get justice in this court,” Khan told reporters while he and Elan were escorted to a heavily guarded van before it hauled them off to prison. 

“I will go to the High Court against this verdict.” 

The prosecution said it would appeal to a higher court to seek a longer prison term for the two men.

Odhikar has also been documenting cases of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings carried out by the country’s security forces under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. She and her Awami League have ruled Bangladesh uninterrupted since 2009. Now the party is gearing up for a general election, which is due in a few months. 

The trial of the activists attracted high-profile statements from abroad. These included a joint resolution adopted by the European Parliament on Thursday and a statement earlier this month by the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights, who called for an end to their “harassment and intimidation.” 

A group of observers from foreign missions was also present at the court when the ruling was announced.

In an immediate reaction after the judge handed down the verdict, 72 domestic and global rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, urged the authorities to “quash the convictions” and release the men. 

A statement by the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka said it was concerned that the verdict would “undermine the ability of human rights defenders and civil society to play their vital democratic role” in Bangladesh.

‘Chilling effect’

Odhikar, in a statement itself, warned that the ruling would have a chilling effect on rights activists and civil society organizations. Convicting and sentencing human rights defenders for their work was unprecedented in Bangladesh, the group said.

“As an organization, Odhikar has drawn the sustained wrath of the establishment for becoming the voice of the victims of human rights violations, including those of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary detention and against the suppression of free expression and assembly; and for its engagement with the United Nations Human Rights Mechanisms,” it read.

Members of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) stand guard during a nationwide protest in Dhaka, Nov. 26, 2013. [Andrew Biraj/Reuters file photo]

International organizations including the United Nations have often cited Odhikar’s reports and documentation of enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killings.

The case against its leaders had been pending before the court for 10 years but gained new momentum after the Biden administration in the United States declared sanctions against an elite Bangladeshi police unit, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), in December 2021. 

In a press release announcing the sanctions, the U.S. Department of Treasury cited allegations made by NGOs that RAB had been complicit in numerous instances of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.

Six months later, in June 2022, the government revoked Odhikar’s license as a non-governmental organization.

‘Tarnishing image of the state’

The case against Odhikar centered around a 2013 operation by security forces to clear a large-scale rally by a conservative Muslim group, Hefazat-e-Islam, in the heart of Dhaka. 

In a fact-finding report published on its website in June 2013, Odhikar claimed that 61 people had been killed in an overnight operation by security forces to remove Hefazat-e-Islam’s activists from a commercial zone in Dhaka.

Khan, who is also a lawyer and a former deputy attorney general, was arrested in August 2013 and spent about two months in police custody before being released on bail. Police also raided Odhikar’s office and confiscated documents and equipment. 

The prosecution claims that during the raid, the police discovered a list of people allegedly killed during the operation but that the tally was inaccurate. 

Odhikar said the tally was a working draft and not the basis of its report.

Activists of Hefazat-e-Islam clash with police in front of the National Mosque in Dhaka, May 5, 2013. [Andrew Biraj/Reuters file photo]

A police report filed to the court accused the men of creating and disseminating “fabricated, deliberate and false reports about the deaths of 61 people,” and thereby causing “public outrage,” attempting to “disrupt law and order” and severely tarnishing “the image of law enforcement, the government and the state at home and abroad.”

Khan and Elan were charged under the Information and Communication Technology Act, a much-criticized internet law that was replaced by the Digital Security Act (DSA) in 2018. The government on Tuesday moved to replace the DSA with another law, Cyber Security Act, that experts said was similarly problematic.

“Adilur Rahman Khan is a well-respected rights activist. He was sentenced under the controversial Section 57 of the ICT Act today,” said Nur Khan Liton, a fellow rights activist who serves as executive director of Ain-O-Salish Kendra (ASK). 

“This verdict goes against human rights and justice.”

In their joint statement following Thursday’s ruling, 72 local and international groups said, “We stand with Khan and Elan and urge the authorities to release them immediately and unconditionally, as they have been detained solely for their human rights work.” 

“The authorities should reverse their convictions, and ensure they are able to continue their human rights documenting and reporting without fear of reprisals,” they added. 

On Wednesday, a joint resolution proposed – and later adopted – by the European Parliament highlighted the case of Odhikar and urged the Bangladesh government to “restore a safe and enabling environment” for NGOs and civil society organizations.

At a press conference on Thursday after the verdict was delivered, Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen described the European resolution as being devoid of any legal authority.

“The discussion [at the European Parliament] regarding this proposal is not legally binding. It is not compulsory,” he said.

His colleague, Md. Shahriar Alam, the junior minister for foreign affairs, went further, calling the resolution an act of “interference.”

“We will take it into cognizance and not sit idle if there is any propaganda against Bangladesh,” he said.


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