Supporters of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) hold placards during a mass rally in front of their Nayapaltan office in Dhaka, Bangladesh, 12 July 2023. EFE-EPA FILE/MONIRUL ALAM

Bangladesh court sentences prominent rights activists to two-year prison term

Dhaka, Sept 14 (EFE).-  A Bangladesh court on Thursday sentenced two officials of a local rights group to two years in prison for allegedly publishing “misleading information” on enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions in the country, defying growing international calls to halt their trial.

Supporters of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) chant slogans during a mass rally in front of their Nayapaltan office in Dhaka, Bangladesh, 12 July 2023. EFE-EPA FILE/MONIRUL ALAM

Judge AM Julfiker Hayet of Dhaka Cyber Tribunal also imposed a fine of 10,000 takas ($90) on the director of rights group Odhikar, Nasir Uddin Elan, and its secretary Adilur Rahman Khan, prosecutor Nazrul Islam told  EFE.

Failure to pay the fine would result in another month in prison for the two activists.

Elan and Khan, who were out on bail but present in court, were immediately sent to jail after the verdict was announced, Islam said.

Representatives from different foreign missions, including the United States, the European Union, and several rights defenders, were present in the courtroom when the verdict was announced.

Soon after, the US embassy in Dhaka issued a statement expressing concern over the verdict.

“The United States strongly supports the role that human rights defenders and civil society organizations play in promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms,” the embassy said.

“In this context, the US Embassy in Dhaka expresses our concern that today’s judgement against Odhikar’s Secretary Adilur Rahman Khan and Director A S M Nasiruddin Elan may further undermine the willingness of human rights defenders and civil society to play their vital democratic role,” it added.

Similarly, other rights groups have also decried the jailing of the activists as an attempt to scare off human rights defenders.

“I think the conviction was an attempt to intimidate the right defenders. It will appear as an obstacle to human rights defense in the future,” Nur Khan Liton, the director of local human rights group Ain-O-Salish Kendra, told EFE.

Khan and Elan were convicted in a case filed against them under the now-repealed Information and Communication Technology Act 2006 for publishing a report on Odhikar’s website about the number of deaths during the police crackdown on a rally of the Islamist group Hefazat-e-Islam in May 2013.

At least 58 people, including seven members of the security forces, were killed in violence linked to the protests by Hefazat – which claims to be a non-political group – on May 5 and 6 in 2013, according to Human Rights Watch.

Khan was detained on Aug. 10, 2013 after the group published the fact-finding report, and his whereabouts were unknown for several hours after his detention until the police filed a case against him under the controversial cyber law.

The activist was held in custody for 62 days, while Odhikar director Nasiruddin Elan, who was arrested later, was held in custody for 25 days until both were released on bail.

On June 5, 2022, Bangladeshi authorities deregistered Odhikar as a non-government organization, accusing it of publishing “misleading information” on enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions in the country.

The verdict against the right defenders came amid growing pressure from the international community to halt their trial.

The European Parliament had on Wednesday called on the Bangladesh government to “immediately and unconditionally drop all charges” against the NGOs officials and reinstate its registration in a resolution approved at its premises in Strasbourg, France.

Nineteen human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, on Aug. 10 urged Bangladeshi authorities to drop “politically motivated” charges against the leaders of Odhikar, 10 years after their persecution began.

In a briefing on Sep. 5 in Geneva, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk expressed concern over “continued intimidation and harassment” of human rights advocates and civil society leaders through legal proceedings in Bangladesh, including Nobel laureate Mohammad Yunus and the two Odhikar leaders.

In a letter on Aug. 28 to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, 176 global leaders, including ex-US President Barack Obama, ex-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and more than 100 Nobel laureates, expressed concern about threats to democracy and human rights in Bangladesh. EFE