UN: Bangladesh’s shutting down of human rights group will have ‘chilling effect’

Ahammad Foyez
UN: Bangladesh’s shutting down of human rights group will have ‘chilling effect’ Rapid Action Battalion members detain Bangladeshi men (sitting) during a drive against drugs at the Suhrawardy Udyan park in Dhaka, Sept. 29, 2018.

Bangladesh’s decision to shut down a leading human rights group that documented alleged extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances will have a “chilling effect,” the United Nations said Friday, a day after 11 rights advocacy organizations jointly raised similar concerns.

The government denied it had refused to renew Odhikar’s license this week because the rights group was among organizations that worked to expose alleged abuses by security agencies. The agencies include the Rapid Action Battalion, an elite police unit that Washington sanctioned in December for its alleged involvement in extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.

But activists maintain that, since the U.S. imposed sanctions on RAB, the Bangladesh government was furious with Odhikar and other rights groups that work with the U.N. and other international bodies.

The South Asian country’s government must foster an enabling environment for civil society to do its work without fear of reprisals, especially heading into the next elections scheduled for December 2023, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OCHCR) said in in a statement from Geneva on Friday.

“We urge the government to immediately reconsider this decision, and to ensure that Odhikar has the ability to seek full judicial review of any such determination,” said Ravina Shamdasani, a spokeswoman for OCHCR.

“We are further concerned that this decision will have a chilling effect on the ability of civil society organizations to report serious human rights violations to U.N. human rights mechanisms.”

The Bangladesh NGO Affairs Bureau, which falls under the Prime Minister’s Office, this week refused to renew Odhikar’s license to operate, stating that the organization had “tarnished the image of the state to the world” and published “misleading” information about the human rights situation.

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

In a joint statement on Thursday, international watchdog Human Rights Watch and 10 other groups called on Bangladesh authorities to immediately reverse their decision to deregister Odhikar.

“Human rights defenders should be allowed to conduct their work without fear of reprisals, intimidation, and harassment from the authorities, HRW said in a statement Thursday.

“This latest development appears to be part of a pattern of reprisals by the Bangladesh government against human rights groups and defenders following the United States … sanctions against Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion on Dec. 10, 2021.”

Odhikar, meanwhile, submitted an application to the High Court against the government’s order, said the group’s lawyer, Ruhul Amin.

‘No matter of revenge’

Responding to the criticism, a Bangladesh official dismissed that allegation, saying the government had rejected Odhikar’s license renewal application according to the law, and that it was not looking to retaliate against the NGO.

“The NGO Affairs Bureau made the decision following the rules and regulations. Of course, there is no matter of revenge on any issue,” said Bangladesh’s most senior cabinet minister, A. K. M. Mozammel Haque.   

Odhikar is among local organizations that have been at the forefront of documenting alleged excesses by the Rapid Action Battalion.

Founded in 2004, RAB 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.

Last week, Bangladesh’s state minister for foreign affairs said RAB was among the agencies that have controlled militancy and terrorism in the world, and therefore was bound to have made a mistake or two.

“When any force, which is engaged in such risky work, or any force which has a weapon in its hand, we do not want to rule out the possibility of some persons going the wrong way in some individual decision,” Minister Shahriar Alam told BenarNews in an interview.


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