On Thursday, a Bangladesh court will in all likelihood convict Adilur Rahman Khan, the secretary of the human rights organisation Odhikar, and ASM Nasiruddin Elan, the group’s director, and sentence them to imprisonment.
Their crime? The publishing of a fact-finding report which documented extrajudicial killings by security forces and law enforcement agencies during a protest in May 2013, where supporters of the madrasah-based Islamic group Hefazat-e-Islam gathered in massive numbers at the country’s capital Dhaka.
This case is a prime example of the current Awami League’s government’s repressive use of the judicial system (now totally under the thumb of the authorities) to take action against those whom it perceives as critics, threats, or opponents. On this occasion, the government has used its control over the judicial system to punish those who expose serious human rights violations in the country.
The report in question alleged that 61 people were killed. The government disputes this number stating that only 11 people died. According to government prosecutors this amounts to publishing “fake, distorted and defamatory” material and “maligning the state” — an offence under a now defunct law, the much criticised Information and Communication Technology Act 2006. Government prosecutors claim that after raiding the human rights group’s office (and arresting Khan) investigators found a file on one of its computers with a list of dead people which was inaccurate. Odhikar says that this document was not the basis of the report’s conclusion and was a draft working document.
If the government wanted to prove that only 11 — and not 61 — people were killed, it should have set up an independent inquiry commission into what happened on the days of the killing rather than raiding the office of a human rights organisation and arresting and prosecuting its directors. One can only assume that the government's failure to do so is because it was not confident of its assertions.
International human rights organisations did however undertake their own inquiries and these provide significant corroboration for Odhikar’s findings.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) concluded in its report that “at least 58 people” died:
“Based on hospital logs, eyewitness accounts, and well-sourced media reports, Human Rights Watch believes that at least 58 people died on May 5 and 6, seven of whom were members of the security forces. However it is likely the death toll was even higher. It is imperative that the government investigate all claims of people still reported as missing. While some could be in hiding, it is possible that others were killed.”
And Amnesty International (AI) stated that at least,
“44 people died in violent clashes between protesters and the police.”
The numbers of deaths confirmed by HRW and AI are far closer to the number reported by Odhikar (with HRW stating that “it is likely the death toll was even higher”) than the number claimed by the government. This raises this question: if anyone should be prosecuted for publishing “fake and distorted” information, shouldn’t it be the government itself?
Instead, the government's attempt to imprison those responsible for human rights fact-finding is an act of political repression of a very high order. It has been widely condemned by the United Nations Office of Human Rights and a few months ago 19 prominent international human rights organisations called for the government to drop the "politically motivated" charges against the two men.
And onto Macron ….
The Cyber Crimes Tribunal was supposed to pronounce its verdict and sentence the two men last week, but at the very last moment the hearing was adjourned for a week. The new date is Thursday, September 14th.
Cynics might wonder whether the adjournment had something to do with the visit to Bangladesh by President Macron of France. He came to the country on Monday (a few days after the adjournment) to sign some commercial contracts and, apparently, to show his support for the Sheikh Hasina government. As DW points out, Macron made no mention of the calamitous state of human rights or democracy in Bangladesh. Not only that but Macron might well have been taking a swipe at the United States, which has been active in seeking to put democracy and human rights at the centre of its diplomacy on Bangladesh as the nation elections near.
"Based on democratic principles and the rule of law, in a region facing new imperialism, we want to propose a third way, with no intention to bully our partners or to lead them to an unsustainable scheme," Macron stated during his visit to Bangladesh. It is unclear who exactly Macron was pointing fingers at, but the word “bully” could well be meant to include the United States.
Jasmin Lorch, a Bangladesh expert at the Hamburg-based GIGA Institute for Asian Studies put it well: "The US has issued a visa ban for people who violate the electoral process and imposed sanctions on the paramilitary RAB while human rights groups have long been criticizing severe human rights violations committed by the Bangladeshi security forces. In this context, Macron is offering the government a 'third way' and is promising to deepen political and economic ties between Bangladesh and France. It's a gift for the Hasina government, which can use Macron's visit to convey the message that it still has partners in the West despite US pressure and sanctions."
What does this have to do with the trial of the Khan and Elan?
Well, eleven months ago Khan was part of a delegation from the International Federation for Human Rights who met President Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace, the official residence of the President of France. At that time, the French president tweeted the following:
“Thanks to the International Federation for Human Rights which for 100 years has been in all the fights. Today it is fighting, thanks to the action of these women and men committed against impunity at the risk of their lives. They know how to count on our support.”
It would certainly have been very embarrassing – both for the French and Bangladesh governments – had the court convicted and imprisoned Khan a few days before Macron, who clearly had no intention of raising the issue of human rights with Sheikh Hasina, arrived in Bangladesh. Perhaps it was to avoid this embarrassment that the government got the court to adjourn the hearing?
It is also notable that it was just in 2018 when at the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Franch government called on the Bangladesh government to "guarantee the security of human rights defenders", stop, and hold to account those responsible, for "extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances" and "guarantee freedom of expression"
Khan and Elan run the human rights organisation, Odhikar (they are "human rights defenders") responsible for a human rights rights reports (they are exercising their "freedom of expression") which highlighted alleged state killings (they are seeking to hold those to account for "extra judicial killings").
Where is France now?
It certainly does not seem likely that these two human rights activists can “count on” Macron’s support in the future, something he promised only 11 months ago. Lets hope other countries have a little bit more human rights backbone.●
Correction: An earlier version of the article said that the two men faced between seven to fourteen years imprisonment. This was the penalty at the time the case was originally filed, but was since amended.
David Bergman (@TheDavidBergman) is a journalist based in Britain who has written widely on Bangladesh. (He was English Editor at Netra News until May 2023)