(New York) - Bangladesh authorities should immediately release the human rights defenders Adilur Rahman Khan and ASM Nasiruddin Elan, quash their convictions, and end all reprisals against them and other human rights defenders for their legitimate human rights work, 39 organizations said today. Khan and Elan were sentenced by the Cyber Tribunal of Dhaka to two years in prison and a fine in retaliation for their work documenting human rights violations in Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh Government has persistently targeted and launched a smear campaign against Khan and Elan, the secretary and director, respectively, of prominent Bangladesh human rights organization Odhikar. Following the 2013 publication of Odhikar's fact-finding report documenting extrajudicial killings during a protest, both defenders were arbitrarily detained; Khan for 62 and Elan for 25 days. After being released on bail, they continued to face prosecution and judicial harassment on trumped-up allegations that their 2013 report was "fake, distorted, and defamatory."
After years of stalling, Bangladeshi judicial authorities accelerated the hearings in their case following the designation of US sanctions against the country's notoriously abusive paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and its officials in December 2021, blaming human rights organizations like Odhikar for this outcome. Their case has been marred with due process violations, such as the failure to provide the defense with advance information on the prosecution witnesses or a copy of the Criminal Investigation Department's further investigation report until the day before a hearing.
After the Government reopened the examination of witnesses and presented additional prosecution witnesses in July and August 2023, the judge convicted Khan and Elan to two years in prison and a fine of 10,000 Bangladeshi Taka (equivalent of USD$91.17).
In addition to targeting Odhikar's leaders, the Government interfered with the organization's ability to conduct its human rights work by blocking their access to funds and leaving its registration renewal application pending since 2014. Following the US sanction designations, the Government increased surveillance and harassment against those affiliated with Odhikar and ordered the organization to provide sources and proof for its findings of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. On June 5, 2022, the Government's NGO Affairs Bureau officially denied Odhikar's application for renewal, stating that the organization's publications have "seriously tarnished the image of the state to the world."
The Government then continued to besmirch the organization publicly, even criticizing and questioning the credibility of the US Department of State's 2022 Country Report on Human Rights Practices: Bangladesh for relying on Odhikar's documentation. United Nations human rights experts have expressed their concerns over the Government's actions, stating that "the defamation of Bangladeshi-based human rights organisations by high-profile public figures is a clear attempt to undermine their credibility, reputation and human rights work in the country."
Human rights defenders should be allowed to conduct their necessary and important work without fear of harassment, intimidation, and reprisals. Instead of prosecuting and punishing those who document and expose human rights violations, the Government should investigate and hold the perpetrators of these violations accountable.
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.
List of signatories:
Source: Human Rights Watch