BANGLADESH: Stop the reprisals against Odhikar

Bangladesh Government must stop the new phase of attack in the saga of ongoing reprisal against human rights organization Odhikar through the country’s Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC). The ACC has initiated an alleged “money laundering” complaint against this human rights organization.

Such investigation is being conducted in an intimidating atmosphere in the office of ACC, an agency lacking in independence and credibility. On many past occasions, the ACC has declared that it did not find any “corruption”, despite details of allegations of scandalous corruption involving high profile ruling party leaders and relatives becoming public knowledge through the media. The ACC has declared these individuals and other ranking public officials having political blessings to be “not corrupted”.

On the other hand, whenever a civil society organization has criticized unlawful actions of the government or released critical reports about governmental institutions, the ACC has summoned members of these civil society organizations and initiated “investigations” that have amounted to harassment, intimidation, and character assassination.

The Asian Human Rights Commission has received a copy of the “notice”, which claims that the ACC has pursued an allegation of money laundering against Odhikar. It states, “97,000 Euro came to Odhikar’s Bank Account as remittance in the Standard Chartered Bank”, without referring to an exact date.

The source and details of the expenditure of this sum has to be provided at the ACC office in person at 3 p.m. on 25 May 2016. Legal proceedings will be initiated in case of failure to appear before the officer at the scheduled time.

It was on 18 May 2016 that Mr. Jalal Uddin Ahammad, Deputy Director of the ACC, issued a notice, which was delivered to Adilur Rahman Khan on the evening of May 22. In the “subject” of the “notice”, the ACC referred to Sections 19 and 20 of the Anti-Corruption Commission Act, 2004, which was amended in October 2013. Section 19 is about “Special powers of the ACC in respect of inquiry or investigation” and Section 20 is regarding its “Power of Investigation”.

Odhikar has informed the Asian Human Rights Commission that it received EUR 97,501.07 from the European Union for implementing a three-year project titled“Education on the Convention against Torture and OPCAT Awareness Programme in Bangladesh”, from 2012 to 2014. This sum was received on the second year of the project period. The reports relating to the project’s activities and financial audits by the auditing firm prescribed by the European Union and the Government of Bangladesh were submitted to the relevant authorities, as per the requirements. There has been no objection raised either by the donor or Bangladesh’s NGO Affairs Bureau, which deals with NGO project matters, operating as an entity under the Office of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh.

In today’s world, the taxpayers’ money is managed by international agencies for human rights activism through lawful means. This is a globally recognized and practiced method of implementing human rights activities all over the world. Odhikar as a lawful entity has its right to receive funds from the international community. The Bangladesh government has violated this practice in the case of Odhikar and continues showing disrespect to the international community by blocking the organization from receiving resources for undertaking human rights work.

The reprisals against Odhikar have been severe. In 2013, in the wake Odhikar publishing a fact-finding report on extrajudicial killings, which took place as part of a State attack on a gathering of Hefazat-E-Islam at Motijheel, the government started persecuting Odhikar.

Arbitrary detentions of Odhikar Secretary Adilur Rahman Khan for 62 days and Director A.S.M. Nasiruddin Elan for 25 days were followed by media propaganda and character assassination of the human rights defenders for publishing the reports. The government arbitrarily disrupted the disbursement of funds for the human rights projects that Odhikar was implementing. In the middle of the process, Odhikar had to stop their project activities. Furthermore, in 2013, criminal cases were fabricated under the cyber-crimes law.

And, besides all this, the ACC has initiated investigations for alleged “money laundering” against Odhikar leadership. The ACC made phone calls to Odhikar’soffice, asking its Secretary and Director to appear before it, in person, bringing all documents to substantiate the transparency of the expenditures of all projects. Once all documents were submitted, the ACC investigator could not find evidence to substantiate the allegation, although they did not disclose their findings. On those occasions, the ACC had informed the pro-government media beforehand to broadcast the arrival and departure of Odhikar human rights defenders, and the media did so while regurgitating unsubstantiated allegations.

Bangladesh is a place where the government uses every institutional entity and legislation to silence free voices. The government does not tolerate criticism of its unlawful actions in any form, not in the mainstream or alternative media. The government is scared of even gentle criticism. Mild criticism from the country’s comatose civil society, divided on whether to oppose or support the authoritarian government, is being dealt with most harshly.

There has been a spree of reprisals against independent voices in Bangladesh; Odhikar is one of the victims. In current circumstances, there is no room left for Odhikar to receive foreign funds to continue human rights projects; the government has frozen all its bank accounts.

The international community, those based inside and outside Bangladesh, and independent human rights experts of the United Nations, should immediately intervene so that the Government of Bangladesh is compelled to stop the intensification of reprisal against Odhikar and other independent voices.