BANGLADESH: Dissidents and Human Rights Defenders Survive Defenselessly

Human rights defenders, dissidents, and political opposition survive in a profoundly dangerous condition of civic space in Bangladesh. The country’s government keeps weaponising draconian laws with impunity to curb civic freedoms of the people. The freedom of peaceful assembly and association and the freedom of expression and opinion are dealt with incarceration by the police, in collusion with the judiciary, and brutal attacks by the ruling party’s activists.

It is already a well-established fact that the incumbent government abuses the organs of the state against independent human rights group, Odhikar, for the organisation’s human rights documentation and cooperation with the United Nations Human Rights Bodies. On 12 May 2022, the government had officially termed the human rights group’s documentation and cooperation with the UN rights bodies as ‘anti-state and anti-government activity’ while responding to a communiqué of eight mandates of Special Procedures of the UN sent on 21 February 2022. The NGO Affairs Bureau’s (NGO-AB) 05 June 2022 cancellation of Odhikar’s renewal of registration has been widely criticised while the UN has slammed this decision on 10 June 2022.

On 27 July 2022, the High Court disposed Odhikar’s Writ (Petition Number 5402 of 2019), which challenged the NGO-AB’s non-renewal of its status since September 2014, by not passing any judgement as Odhikar’s lawyers did not want to proceed with the matter on the ground that the registration renewal application was unilaterally cancelled by the NGO-AB disregarding the High Court’s proceedings that began in May 2019 and subsequently, as per the Foreign Donations (Voluntary. Activities) Regulation Act 2016 the rights group had already filed an appeal with the Secretary of the Prime Minister’s Office pending a hearing on 03 August 2022. However, the Deputy Attorney General for Bangladesh Kazi Mynul Hassan had misinterpreted the High Court’s decision in his remarks given to the country’s media as he stated that ‘the organization cannot run functions from now no’. There are reasons to be alerted that such misinterpretations are made deliberately for stifling Odhikar, which gives voice to the voiceless in the country.

The Secretary and Director of Odhikar have been currently facing prosecution before the Cyber Tribunal of Dhaka in cybercrime case filed against them in August 2013 for conducting fact-finding report on alleged extrajudicial killings of demonstrators in an overnight crackdown by the security forces and law-enforcement agencies. The government continues reprisals against Odhikar for communicating its reports with the UN independent experts on thematic issues and Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanisms. The pro-government media outlets smear hate-campaign against Odhikar and its leaderships over the years.

The government frequently challenges the credibility of domestic civil society groups, international human rights organisations and other entities whenever their reports expose the gross violation of human rights of Bangladesh. The HRDs, dissidents, and the opposition parties survive in a defenseless condition as there is hardly any resort to get redress under a kleptocratic regime. In the given situation the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Mary Lawlor wrote an article in newspaper seeking protection of HRDs and journalists.

Exercising the freedom of expression and the freedom of press have become harder than ever in Bangladesh. The country ranked 162nd amongst 180 countries in the global press freedom index of the Reporters Without Borders in 2021.

Freelance journalist Mahfuz Kabir Mukta got physically tortured by the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), the ruling party’s student wing, while he was filming and streaming the BCL’s attack on the opposition student wing Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal (JCD) on 26 May 2022. After brutal torture the BCL allegedly snatched the streaming devices including digital camera from Mahfuz and handed him over to the Shahbagh police. The police then detained Mahfuz and showed him arrested in 13 criminal cases including the case of cheque-defrauding. He remains in jail since then as his family could not afford the costs of paying for the litigations costs and securing bail in all the trumped-up cases.

Md Saidur Rahman (also known as ‘Rahman Henry’ while writes and publishes his poetry), a senior assistant secretary of the government, has been reportedly terminated from public service on 13 June 2022, for publishing a poem on 8 October 2020 in Facebook. The government was offended by Rahman Henry’s poem ‘tarnished the image of the administration’ as there were criticisms of the regime. An administrative investigation team found Rahman’s replies and explanations ‘unsatisfactory’ and decided to terminate him permanently from job.

Exiled journalist Kanak Sarwar’s sister Nusrat Shahrin Raka continues facing repressions and harassments as the trumped-up cybercrime case under the DSA and drug-possession case under the Narcotics Act is not dropped yet. The Rapid Action Battalion detained Raka on 4 October 2021 late night and since then she was arbitrarily detained for a prolonged period until her release on 30 March 2022. The Cyber Tribunal of Dhaka has set 18 September 2022 as the next date for examining witness in the DSA case against Raka.

Md. Shah Paran, at the time of working for the National Human Rights Commission as its Assistant Director, sexually assaulted a female lawyer, who was a co-passenger on a bus in December 2020, was recruited to the Judiciary as an Assistant Judge in November 2021 while police investigation report confirmed evidence to substantiate the allegation of sexual abuse. The Law Ministry, however, stayed the appointment following protests by rights groups. As the charge framed against the accused he retaliated by registering a cybercrime case against the survivor for posting media reports on social media questioning the integrity of the judiciary if sexual abuser gets recruited to the institution. The Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Court of Dhaka detained the survivor for six days in jail in the cybercrime case and granted bail on condition that she withdraws her sexual abuse case from the ongoing trial. The judge failed to protect the freedom of expression of the victim. Instead, the judge sided with the perpetrator of sexual abuse, bargained on his behalf, and blocked the paths to justice for sexual abuse case.

The Cyber Tribunal of Chattogram has sentenced a schoolteacher, namely Debabrata Das Debu, to 8 years for ‘hurting religious sentiments’ with comments he made about Islam on social media in October 2017. The Cyber Tribunal Judge Md Zahirul Kabir has also fined the man with BDT 20,000 or face an additional 6 months’ imprisonment in failure of paying the penalty.

The Cyber Tribunal of Dhaka’s Judge Md. Ash-Shams Joblul Hossain, on 6 June 2022, has sentenced Jahangirnagar University student Shamsul Alam Babu to 7 years in prison in a case over an alleged ‘slanderous attack on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and on his Facebook account.

Exercising the freedom of peaceful association and assembly becomes impossible due to the violence unleashed by the ruling party’s student wing, Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL). On 7 June 2022 the BCL attacked the leaders of Ganatantra Mancha, a new opposition platform, while the leaders were visiting the Chottogram Medical College Hospital to see the victims who got injured in a massive fire at container depot in Chottogram. At least 20 persons were injured in that incident.

At least, 40 JCD activists were injured due to the BCL attack in Dhaka on 24 May 2022 while another 30 activists were injured in another attack on 26 May. These attacks took place in presence of the police who allegedly remained inactive to allow the ruling party activists to unleash violence against their political counterparts.

Jailing dissidents under the draconian Digital Security Act-2018 (DSA), Information and Communication Technology Act-2006, Anti-Terrorism Act-2009, and Special Powers Act-1974 has been a norm in Bangladesh. Moreover, the government is reportedly adopting three new laws to control the digital medium. The ‘Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission Regulation for Digital, Social Media and OTT Platforms’ is being adopted to intensify the surveillance on freedom of expression on virtual platforms. In the lead up to the 12th national parliamentary elections scheduled in December 2023 or early 2024 the government is criminalising expressions and exposure of information in virtual platforms. This draft law has already triggered serious concerns from 45 international human rights groups including Human Rights Watch.

The judiciary continues snatching the right to liberty of the dissidents through judicial detention and arbitrary convictions while the right to fair trial is systematically denied to the alleged defendants. The judges of Bangladesh colludes with the law-enforcement agencies to commit human rights violations through denying access to justice and disregarding the UN Basic Principles of Independence of the Judiciary. In dearth of accountability of the judges, whose recruitments are highly intervened by the executive authorities on political motivation subsiding the merits and upright principles, the judicial integrity has plunged to an abysmal level.

Bangladesh needs immediate transfer of power from the incumbent repressive regime to pave the way for democratization and subsequent reforms of the institutions for ensuring good governance with the rule of law.