– By Odhikar, Bangladesh –
‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.’ Martin Luther King, Jr.
Oppressive States act against human rights defenders (HRDs) and their organisations in various ways, such as: arbitrary arrest and detention; physical attacks; harassment; intimidation; smear campaigns; and continuous surveillance of their activities. The repressive approach of the State is also reflected in its law enforcing apparatus, which is unleashed to harass those who speak against the Government. Such course of action indicates that in such States, only those receiving the blessings of the authorities can work free of hurdles while the rest remain in a risky environment.
Restrictions on Freedom of Expression
In Bangladesh restrictions on Freedom of expression (FoE) are becoming increasingly severe, and such freedom seems only allowed to those who are ideologically and politically close to the regime. Pro-Government media are used to defame any opposition and to carry out smear campaigns against persons who have alternative beliefs.
Cases are launched against dissenters, mainly through the Information and Communication Technology Act of 2006 (ICT Act), for criticising the Prime Minister or her family members in print and electronic form. Moreover, defamation and sedition charges are brought against persons for commenting on the Government by using repressive laws.
Interestingly, when the Leader of the Opposition is criticised, the Government and its law enforcement agencies remain silent. This shows that defamation laws and the provisions of the ICT Act are being used selectively. Many people, including HRDs, journalists, bloggers and teachers have been charged under these repressive laws. The case of Advocate Adilur Rahman Khan is a blatant example of the victimisation of HRDs through State oppression.
Standing up for human rights
Adilur Rahman Khan is a practicing lawyer of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, as well as a prominent human rights activist. He is a founding member and, at present, the Secretary of Odhikar, a leading human rights organisation in Bangladesh. He has been actively engaged in defending the human rights of the Bangladeshi people both inside the court room and in public, and is active in the Asian region through participation in various programmes and through election observation missions.
Adilur has faced numerous challenges and impediments during his human rights activism by state actors as he is extremely vocal with regard to denouncing the practice of extra-judicial killing, enforced disappearance and torture, and the inhuman and degrading treatment by law enforcement agencies. He was targeted by the current Government for being vocal against human rights violations in many national and international forums, including the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
5 and 6 May 2013
On 5 May 2013, a non-political religious group called Hefazate Islam held a ‘Dhaka blockade’ at all the entry points to Dhaka to highlight their 13 point demands. Later that day they organised a rally at Shapla Chottor in the Motijheel area. They were given permission to hold that rally by the Government, who had allowed them to hold a similar rally the month before.
From the morning of 5 May, hundreds of supporters of the Hefazate Islam began gathering. Many were physically assaulted, hurt and injured by the police and activists of the ruling political party, the Awami League. There were reported incidents of vandalism and arson too.
Late in the evening of 5 May, the Government decided to clear the Montijheel Shapla Chottor area of the Hefazate Islam supporters. At around midnight, the area where the Hefazate Islam supporters were gathered became
dark, as street and building lights went off. A ‘cleaning operation’ was being carried out by a combined force of police, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB).
The ‘operation’ continued through the night of 5 May and the early morning of 6 May. At around 2:00 am on 6 May, pro-opposition owned television channels airing the incident were shut down by the Government.
After the incident, on receiving information of the extra-judicial killings that occurred on 5 and 6 May, Odhikar conducted a thorough fact finding mission and released a fact finding report on 10 June 2013 on the human rights violations perpetrated, verifying 61 deaths. The Government, however, claimed that there had been no casualties. This claim was later adjusted to 13 casualties. Odhikar was the only human rights organisation that carried out an in-depth fact-finding mission into this matter and published the report on its website in Bangla and English.
The disappearance of Adilur
On 10 July 2013, the Information Ministry sent Odhikar a letter, asking for the names, family names and addresses of the 61 deceased people. Being a human rights organisation, Odhikar informed the Ministry, by a letter dated July 17 2013 addressed to the Information Minister, Hasanul Huq Inu, that it would give the list of the deceased people only to an independent inquiry commission, if one would be formed, since the Government was the alleged perpetrator. The Ministry did not reply or react to Odhikar’s letter.
It was 10 August 2013, the second day of the Eid festival. Adilur had visited relatives together with his wife and children to exchange Eid greetings. At 10:20 pm, when they were returning home, they passed a white microbus full of men parked on the side of their unusually dark street. As soon as Adilur drove into the driveway of the house, another white microbus and a Pajaro jeep blocked the gate and approximately 10 men exited the microbus and gathered around Adilur.
They had no warrant and no identification. They said they belonged to the Detective Branch (DB) of the Police. They took him away in the microbus, bearing the name and logo of United Commercial Bank Limited and license number Dhaka Metro 534206.
As Adilur was picked up by men who did not show any form of identification, his family was unable to confirm where he had been taken. His family searched for him in the Gulshan Police Station – the local police station – and at the Headquarters of the DB of the Police, where they were met with denials, despite the television channels reporting that he had been arrested and taken to the DB Office.
After sending out an urgent alert at 10:40 pm, Odhikar’s defenders and Adilur’s family held a press conference at 11:30 pm that same night, which was aired on almost all television channels. After that, they came to know from the late night news and other sources that Adilur was in the custody of the DB Police.
However, between midnight and 2:00 am, Adilur’s wife went and waited at the DB Headquarters and Gulshan Police Station, with Adilur’s cousin, where the officers they spoke to denied any knowledge of the incident.
At 2:30 am on 11 August, Adilur’s wife returned to Gulshan Police Station to file a General Dairy (GD) about the abduction, but police flatly refused to accept it. The Officer-in-Charge said it was a ‘sensitive issue’ and they were under instructions from ‘high up’ not to accept any GD.
Support from abroad
The urgent alert did work and reached Adilur’s and Odhikar’s friends, wellwishers and networks of HRDs around the world. Many international organisations and Embassies came forward to demand a confirmation of the whereabouts of Adilur, and issued several urgent appeals and statements to the Bangladeshi authorities.
Amongst the statements issued for Adilur were those from the United Nations, the Department of State of the United States of America and the European Union. The speedy intervention from various quarters of the world helped to prevent Adilur from being a victim of enforced disappearance, and the law enforcers were compelled to produce him before the Court.
In the afternoon of 11 August 2013, Adilur was produced before the Magistrate’s Court and initially shown as arrested under the grossly misused section 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure – which allows police to arrest person’s without a warrant for several reasons, based on whether the police have ‘reasonable suspicion’.
He was taken into police remand, which was challenged in the High Court the very next day. The latter ordered that he be taken into jail custody and that the police would question him there. On 11 August 2013, at 8:30 pm, the DB police raided the Odhikar office and confiscated two Central Processing Units (CPUs) and three laptops, which contained sensitive and confidential information and documents relating to victims of human rights abuses and their families.
A few days later, the police submitted a charge sheet, which provided that Adilur Rahman Khan had been charged for crimes committed under the ICT Act of 2006 – which had been amended in 2009 – for fabricating information and pictures concerning violence at a Hefazate Islam gathering in Shapla Chottor, Dhaka in May 2013, and thus creating public panic and belittling the State and the police.
The charges were based on the fact finding report titled ‘Assembly of Hefazate Islam Bangladesh and Human Rights Violations’ prepared by Odhikar regarding the human rights violations, in particular, the allegations of extra-judicial killings that erupted on 5-6 May 2013, which was uploaded on the Odhikar website. Also charged with Adilur was the Director of Odhikar, ASM Nasiruddin Elan, who voluntarily appeared before the court in September and was sent to jail custody from there. The persecution and framing of charges against Odhikar was simply a repressive measure to stop any further investigation into claims of deaths and injuries during the incidents of 5-6 May 2013.
The ICT Act of 2006 and its amendments
It has to be mentioned that the ICT Act of 2006, which was amended in 2009 and 2013, has become the primary repressive instrument in the hands of the Government to repress and silence opponents and dissenters.
The Law was originally introduced in 2006 during the BNP led Four-Party Alliance Government, and was first amended in 2009. On 19 August 2013, the Cabinet approved a draft of the second amendment of the ICT Act, strengthening its repressive purpose through the amendment of sections 54, 56, 57 and 61. The amendments increased the length of punishment, making offences non-bailable and cognisable.
The reason for Adilur Rahman’s arrest on 10 August 2013 was known on 11 August, but it was not known under which amendment of the law. The police submitted the charge sheet – end-ofinvestigation report – to the Magistrate long after 19 August, without informing the defence. It was only then that it was learnt that he had been charged under the 2009 amendment.
In the Magistrate’s Court, the Public Prosecutor, Abdullah Abu asked for ten days remand for Adilur Rahman Khan, while his lawyers asked for bail, as he had been arrested before the 2013 amendment, and thus his arrest under Section 54 was still a bailable offence. The Magistrate, Amit Kumar Dey, denied bail and ordered that Adilur Rahman Khan be taken into remand for five days.
On 12 August 2013, Adilur’s lawyers moved a Writ Petition in the High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, challenging the order of remand and its unconstitutionality. The Judges declared the remand illegal and ordered police to send Adilur to jail custody. Any further questioning by the police would be done at the jail gate-house.
On 13 August, Adilur was brought to the Magistrate’s Court from the DB office to be sent to jail. His lawyer made an Application for Division to be granted to him, given his social standing, profession and education. However, the Magistrate did not accept the application. Adilur was then taken to Dhaka Central Jail and, three hours later, to Kashimpur Jail-1 in Gazipur.
The High Court granted him Division status on 2 September 2013 via a petition that had to be filed by his wife, as petitioner, as the affidavit allowed him to appoint a lawyer on his behalf, in the application to seek Division, failed to reach him in jail from the Commissioner’s office. Incidentally, he saw the said affidavit on the Jail Superintendent’s table when he was leaving Kashimpur Jail on bail, in October.
Support and fear
The case was monitored by several foreign Embassies in Dhaka, including the European Union, the Dutch Embassy, the Swedish Embassy, the French Embassy, the British High Commission, the German Embassy, and more. The diplomats and representatives from these Embassies had visited the Magistrate Court and the Cyber Crimes Tribunal to observe the hearing and trial process of Adilur Rahman Khan as and when he was produced before the court. This did not hold well with the Government, that tried and failed to stop the presence of foreign trial observers.
HRDs, who were associated with Odhikar, across the country organised protest meetings, rallies and human chains in many districts of Bangladesh, asking the Government to release Adilur. Some friends and well-wishers opened a Facebook page titled ‘Free Adilur Rahman Khan’.
No forefront human rights NGOs and civil society organisation in the country stood beside Adilur Rahman Khan and his organisation Odhikar, although some individuals of a few organisations expressed their solidarity and protested the arrest of Adilur. The possible reasons of such silence could have been reluctance to engage in a fight with the Government that might be harmful for their own organisations or fear that they may face the same consequences as Adilur and Odhikar.
Charges and hearings
On 4 September 2013, Adilur Rahman Khan and Odhikar’s Director ASM Nasiruddin Elan were formally charged under the ICT Act, 2006 – amendment 2009. They would be tried in the Cyber Crimes Tribunal and the case was transferred to the Tribunal from the Magistrate’s Court. While he was being charged, Adilur was not present in the Court, in contravention to the Code of Criminal Procedure. He was in a holding cell waiting to be called up.
His lawyers were informed by the Court that his matter would not be heard that day. At 2:00 pm, he was on his way back to Kashimpur Jail when the investigating officers presented their charge sheet and he was charged. This was shown as breaking news on a few television channels and his family and lawyers learnt about the charges from the television news at 3:00 pm.
Interestingly, when Adilur and Elan were being charged, the Government had yet to appoint a Prosecutor to the Cyber Crimes Tribunal, even after four Tribunal appearances. Exasperated, the defence team requested a Prosecutor not related to the matter, to stay on in the Tribunal and perform his public duty. Furthermore, the Tribunal used delay tactics to stall the handing over of certified copies of the prosecution report and supporting evidence to Adilur’s lawyers.
His bail application was rejected three times by the Lower Courts, although the offence was a bailable one. Finally his lawyers were able to file a bail petition in the High Court Division and Adilur was granted six month’s interim bail by the High Court Division on 8 October 2013. He was only released on 11 October 2013, although his lawyers were told by the Dhaka Central Jail Superintendent that the Bail Order had left for Kashimpur Jail (a three hour journey) on the afternoon of 9 October 2013. ASM Nasiruddin Elan came out on bail on 1 December 2013.
It needs to be mentioned that on 8 October 2013 the Additional Attorney General, Momtazuddin Fakir had opposed the bail petition of Adilur, citing that if bail was granted the accused would destroy evidence and would abscond abroad. Furthermore, in the morning of 9 October 2013, the Attorney General’s office appealed to the Chamber Judge of the Appellate Division, seeking a stay against Adilur’s bail order, but the Honourable Chamber Judge did not grant a stay. Adilur’s lawyers filed a petition to the High Court Division of the Supreme Court to put a stay on the trial of the case and accordingly the High Court Division ordered a stay on the proceedings in the Cyber Crimes Tribunal on 21 January 2014. This stay order has been extended on 15 September 2014 till the hearing of the matter.
Odhikar, as a human rights organisation, has come under Government fire during various regimes, for being vocal against human rights violations and for campaigning to stop them. However, the present Grand Alliance Government, led by the Awami League, after assuming power in 2009, started severe levels of harassment on Odhikar for its reports on the human rights situation in the country. Despite the barriers, the harassment, the security issues and the lack of resources, Odhikar is, first and foremost, a human rights activist organisation. It is run on the energy of the remaining staff, members, and the volunteer services of grassroots level HRDs, who dedicate time towards doing what they can to continue to work for the betterment of human rights.
Odhikar, a Bangla word that means ‘rights’, is one of the leading human rights organisations in Bangladesh. It was established in 1994 and since then focuses its work on human rights defenders, enforced disappearances, elections, violence against women, extrajudicial killings and torture. Odhikar is a member organisation of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and FORUM-ASIA.