On July 11, three United Nations (UN) experts called for an end to the intimidation and repeated harassment of representatives of Odhikar, a Dhaka-based rights group that has been documenting cases of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh since 1994. Odhikar’s renewal application was pending with the country’s NGO Affairs Bureau (NGOAB) from 2014 until the group’s deregistration in June last year.
Odhikar has also been facing judicial persecution with charges filed against its secretary Adilur Rahman Khan and director ASM Nasiruddin Elan for allegedly publishing “fake, distorted and defamatory” information. Both of them were arbitrarily detained in 2013 for 62 days and 25, respectively, and later released on bail.
According to the UN experts, their trial has seen several violations of due process. After resuming hearings in the case in December 2021, the Cyber Tribunal of Dhaka started the examination of witnesses, however, the proceedings were marred by several delays. This year, the Tribunal closed the examination of witnesses on April 5 and accepted the prosecution’s request for further investigation in the case on May 15, overruling the objection raised by the defense. The judge also ordered three international observers present in the case to leave the court.
UN experts call on #Bangladesh to end all acts of harassment against representatives of the human rights organisation #Odhikar and ensure respect for due process: Reprisals have a chilling effect & may deter others from reporting on #HumanRights issues.
🔗 https://t.co/rEG48LNFfc pic.twitter.com/apEia84nGI
— UN Special Procedures (@UN_SPExperts) July 11, 2023
In May, at least 34 international human rights groups, including Asian Alliance Against Torture, Asian Human Rights Commission, and Front Line Defenders, signed a petition seeking an end to the harassment of representatives of Odhikar. According to the petitioners, the critical work done by the organization in holding perpetrators accountable was the reason that authorities withheld its registration and prosecuted its representatives, the groups said.
The NGOAB had denied Odhikar renewal, accusing it of publishing “misleading information,” “seriously (tarnishing) the image of the State to the world,” and creating “various issues against Bangladesh.”
Bangladeshi authorities led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina have also been accused of frequently using the draconian Digital Security Act 2018 (DSA) against dissenting voices in the country. In another case, university student Khadijatul Kubra was arrested in September 2022 and charged under the Act after hosting a webinar where critical remarks were made against the Bangladesh government. On July 10, the Supreme Court adjourned the bail hearing in her case for four more months, extending her already long pretrial detention.
The UN experts have noted that such moves by the government had a “chilling effect and may deter others from reporting on human rights issues and cooperating with the UN, its representatives and mechanisms.” They also added that “the defamation of Bangladesh-based human rights organizations by high-profile public figures is a clear attempt to undermine their credibility, reputation and human rights work in the country.”