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Global Human Rights Issues

Adilur Rahman Khan (Bangladesh)

Adilur Rahman Khan is a prominent human rights activist and one of the founders and at present, the Secretary of Odhikar, a leading human rights organisation in Bangladesh. He is engaged in defending the human rights of the Bangladeshi people and is also active in the Asian region, through various human rights networks. Adilur Rahman Khan has faced many challenges and come under surveillance, threats and intimidation from law enforcement agencies for being vocal against enforced disappearance, torture and extrajudicial killings.

At 10:20 pm on August 10, 2013, Adilur was abducted by members of the Detective Branch of police and later detained in jail, in relation to Odhikar’s fact-finding report on allegations of extrajudicial killings during a security-force operation carried out in May 2013. On October 8, 2013 the High Court Division of Supreme Court of Bangladesh granted him bail and he was released on 11 October 2013, after 62 days in detention.

In 2014, he received the Gwangju Human Rights Award, Martin Ennals (runners-up) award, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award and the International Bar Association Human Rights Award. In 2017 he received the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights.

As a lawyer of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, Adilur has been fighting for establishing rule of law and access to justice for the poor and marginalized sections of society. He has taken up many human rights cases throughout his professional career, including obtaining the release of 300 detainees belonging to the ethnic minority community of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and representing political detainees and those detained under repressive laws.

Struggle for Freedom from an Authoritarian Rule

Bangladesh’s liberation from Pakistani rule in 1971, was based on equality, human dignity and social justice. However, even after 48 years, the people’s expectations to have a democratic Constitution is still a far cry away. After independence, the Constitution was drafted and imposed in 1972, without an election for a Constituent Assembly being held, which defeated the very principles of the liberation war. Due to this weak foundation, the country witnessed the imposition of a single-party system in January 1975 which was followed by coups, counter coups and the assassination of the founding President of Bangladesh Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, along with most of his family members. There was a lull in the political turmoil for a short span of time between 1978 and 1981 (in May 1981, the decorated freedom fighter and President Lieutenant General Ziaur Rahman was assassinated). After that, Bangladesh struggled under the autocratic ruler Lieutenant General Hussein Muhammad Ershad from March 1982 to December 1990. A student-led pro-democratic movement succeeded in forcing General Ershad to resign and hand over his power to an interim Government, to pave the way for the 5th parliamentary elections held in February 1991, which was considered to be the most free and fair election after our independence.

The Caretaker Government system was introduced in the Constitution in 1996, in order to hold free and fair elections. This system continued till June 2011. The Awami League-led alliance formed a government in 2009 after winning the elections held under a military-backed Caretaker Government. The incumbent Awami League government amended the Constitution unilaterally in 2011 and repealed the Caretaker Government system, ignoring objections from civil society and opposition political parties and without a referendum. As a result of the abolition of the Caretaker Government system, the controversial and farcical 10th Parliamentary election1 was held on 5 January 2014, which was boycotted by the Opposition; and the Awami League returned to power again. At the 11th Parliamentary elections on 30 December 2018, held under the ruling Awami League government, all opposition political parties participated as the government had promised to conduct a free and fair election. However, the ruling Awami League broke its promise and came back to power by unprecedented2 acts of irregularity and paved the way for yet another farcical3 election. The government destroyed the transition of power through elections and transformed itself into an authoritarian government by introducing a repressive regime. The two consecutive elections have created a huge vacuum in the country due to the loss of democracy, accountability and rule of law. As a result, the level of oppression has worsened as the state security forces and the ruling party leaders/activists recklessly commit human rights violations. Ever since the Awami League-led Alliance government came to power in 2009, various government, constitutional and autonomous institutions began to become heavily politicised. Institutions like the Judiciary, the Election Commission and the National Human Rights Commission have become dysfunctional leaving no room for ventilating the grievance or to seek remedy. As a result, there is an absence of effective institutions to prevent political intolerance, undemocratic acts of the state and violations of human rights. As a grave reminder of the abuses perpetrated by this regime, there have been a recorded 2,312 extra judicial killings and 553 enforced disappearances from January 2009 to December 2019.

Since its inception in 1994, Odhikar has been relentlessly struggling to protect the civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights of the people. Odhikar, as an organisation founded by the pro-democracy activists and human rights defenders, has always sought to raise awareness to all human rights violations committed by the state and campaign for internationally recognised civil and political rights, to protest against and prevent the state from violating human rights. Human rights violations are occurring in the country due to the fact that an authoritarian government system is in place. Odhikar has always been monitored and occasionally harassed by law enforcement agencies, due to its human rights work, but it has been facing state extreme repression and harassment since 2013 due to the repressive nature of the regime. Despite this, Odhikar has maintained its commitment and highlighted human rights violations through defending human rights and publishing reports. It is acting like a resistance movement for establishing democracy for the people of Bangladesh in particular and also for the people of South Asia in general.

The main aims of Odhikar are to protest against all human rights violations committed by the state, to be vigilant towards preventing the state from violating human rights, to bring accountability of the state in conformity with the respect, protection and fulfillment of human rights, to assist the victims; and above all to make people aware of their rights. Odhikar is part of the international human rights movement and a member of various international human rights orgnisations. It has actively been involved in the struggle for the implementation of internationally recognised civil and political; economic, social and cultural rights of the people of Bangladesh.

While working on human rights activities Odhikar focuses on enforced disappearances; extrajudicial killings; torture; freedom of expression and the media; freedom of assembly and association; violence against women; and human rights violations of religious, ethnic and linguistic minority communities. For its activism, Odhikar has been harassed and oppressed under successive governments. Repression on Odhikar continued under the Awami League-led Alliance assumed power in 2009, after winning the Jatiya Sangsad (National Parliament) elections held under the military-backed caretaker government. This repression escalated in 2013. Extra-judicial killings took place on 5 and 6 May in 2013, centering on a rally organised by Hefazate Islam. Odhikar carried out a fact-finding mission into that incident and uploaded its report on its website. On 10 August 2013 at around 10:00 pm, I was picked up by members of the Detective Branch (DB) of Police without a warrant of arrest. Later I and Odhikar’s Director ASM Nasiruddin Elan were charged under the repressive Information and Communication Technology Act 2006 (Amendment 2009) for that report. We were released on bail after being detained for 62 and 25 days in jail, respectively. In addition, on 11 August 2013, members of the DB Police raided the Odhikar office and confiscated laptops and desktops, and documents where sensitive information about victims, including the victims of violence against women and their families were stored. Till date, those computers and documents have not been returned to Odhikar. The government has not approved fund clearance of any project of Odhikar since 2014. Bank accounts of Odhikar at the Standard Chartered Bank have been dormant since 2014. Odhikar applied to the NGO Affairs Bureau (NGOAB) for renewal of its registration in September 2014, but registration has not been renewed till date and the NGOAB has stopped fund clearance of its human rights activities. Furthermore, smear campaigns and false and fabricated propaganda against Odhikar have been spread through various media supported by the Awami League government since 10 August 2013. The government also used the state institutions- the Anti-Corruption Commission and the Election Commission, to harass Odhikar and suppress our activists. The Election Commission had abruptly canceled the registration of Odhikar as an election monitor, without following the rules and regulations, so that it could not observe the 11th Parliamentary elections held on 30 December 2018.

Human rights defenders associated with Odhikar have been attacked, harassed and intimidated in different ways and at various times due to speaking out against human rights violations. Notable among them, are Abdullah Al Farooq who was killed by unknown persons in Dhaka in 2000. Human rights defender Afzal Hossain from Bhola District, was critically injured in police firing while gathering information on election violence during the local government polls in 2016; and in February 2017, Abdul Hakim Shimul, from Sirajganj, was shot dead by the ruling Awami League party leader while collecting information on political violence. Human rights defenders Hassan Ali and Aslam Ali from Kushtia; and Sheikh Mohammed Ratan from Munshiganj had been accused under the Information and Communication Technology Act, 2006 (amended in 2009 & 2013) and detained in jail in 2017, for playing an active role against human rights violations at the local level. In 2019, Abdul Kaium from Mymensingh was arrested under the Digital Security Act of 2018 and detained in jail. Staff and activists of Odhikar are constantly being subjected to intelligence surveillance, harassment and intimidation. During the crackdown on Odhikar in 2013, members of the intelligence agencies and government-backed miscreants harassed and intimidated women human rights defenders trained by Odhikar in different districts of the country. As a result, many of them turned away from human rights activities due to lack of security. For the last six years, even under the most repressive conditions, human rights defenders of Odhikar are still working because of their strong commitment to protect human rights. Odhikar believes that the people of Bangladesh will be exempted from extreme human rights violations only if a democratic state can be formed on the basis of equality, human dignity and social justice.

I was awarded the Gwangju Prize in 2014 jointly with the Mothers’ Of Khavaran of Iran, as recognition of our fight for democracy and human rights. Since then, I have connected myself with the other awardees of the Gwangju Prize and made myself familiar with and an ardent campaigner of, the peoples’ struggles across Asia. The struggle of the young people in Gwangju from May 18 to 27, 1980 to defend the city from the military crackdown, will remain as an inspiration of the people of Bangladesh to fight to end authoritarian rule. Odhikar’s fight as a resistance movement against authoritarianism and human rights abuses has become stronger than ever. The solidarity shown by the May 18 Memorial Foundation and other international human rights organisations to us and our work only strengthens our resolve.

Finally, the cries for change from Chile, France, Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, India, Indonesia, Hong Kong and elsewhere are becoming strong again and are heard by human rights defenders worldwide. It is only a matter of time when the present world order to defend injustices, authoritarianism, corruption, human rights violations, environmental injustices or economic disparities will be scaled down and this repressive order of the contemporary world will end.

1  The Caretaker Government system was incorporated in the Constitution through the 13th amendment to the Constitution, as a result of people’s movement led by the then Opposition Awami League and its alliance between 1994 and 1996. However, in 2011 the caretaker government system were removed unilaterally by the Awami League government through the 15th amendment to the Constitution, without any referendum and ignoring the protests from various sectors; and a provision was made that elections were now to be held under the incumbent government. As a result, the farcical 10th Parliamentary elections were held on 5 January 2014, despite the boycotting of this election by a large majority of political parties. The election was farcical and out of 300 constituencies, 153 MP’s were declared elected uncontested even before the polling commenced.
2  Election Process Tracking: The Eleventh National Parliament Election 2018, Transparency International Bangladesh/ 3 April 2019;
3  Incidents of various irregularities, such as stuffing ballot boxes the night before polling day; casting fake votes; voters being forced or coerced to vote openly for the ruling party candidates; ‘capturing’ polling centres; arrests and forcibly ousting of polling agents of the opposition party-nominated candidates; and intimidation of voters by supporters of the ruling Awami League-nominated candidates, election officials and members of law enforcement agencies, occurred.