Human rights voices weaken under pressure


Jesmin Nahar stands alone, helpless. Her husband, Mukhlesur Rahman, was a homeopathic physician. On 4 August 2016 he was picked up by the police. The next day his wife Jesmin went to their local police station in Satkhira sadar, but the police denied any involvement in the matter.

Jesmin was expecting their child at the time and has been searching for her husband since then. The legal aid organisation Ain O Salish Kendra came to her assistance for some time, but now there is no one by her side.

Prothom Alo investigations reveal that over the past few years, human rights organisations have been winding down their active protests against the cases of repression which are sensitive for the government. Forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, death in custody and fake cases continue, but the space for affected persons to seek help is gradually shrinking.

Speaking to Prothom Alo on 28 April, Jesmin said she had filed a writ petition with the High Court and the High court had ordered a judicial inquiry into the matter of her missing husband. The investigating magistrate wrote that the police statement had been fabricated.

After investigations, the Police Bureau of Investigations (PBI) advised Jesmin to file a case in court against the accused members of the police. Jesmin, alone and bereft, was unable to do so.

Towards the beginning of this year too, the human rights organisations were vocal and helpful regarding such repression. On 16 July 2011, police had beaten up Dhaka University biochemistry student Abdul Kader and taken him to the Khilgaon police station. In the morning, the officer-in-charge (OC) struck him with a cleaver.

The media report in this regard led to strong protests from the university students, teachers and the national human rights commission and other human rights organisations. The OC and other members of the police force involved in the incident were punished.

There have been similar incidents. Last year Teknaf pourashava councilor Ekramul Huq was killed in a ‘gunfight’ with the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). His wife Ayesha Akhter said no one stood beside her and she has not received justice.

In 2011, Limon Hossain of Jhalkathi lost his leg after being shot by RAB. Ain O Salish Kendra, the national human rights commission and several non-government organisations rushed to his side. RAB withdrew the two cased filed against him.

Prothom Alo carried out investigations into the activities of the country’s leading human rights organisations. This correspondent spoke to 21 long-standing human rights activists and also investigated details of 12 incidents, old and recent.

The sensitive cases are no longer being dealt with so actively. The human activists say that the reason behind this is pressure from the government and a lack of democratic environment. There were all sorts of pressure before too, but this has stepped up since 2013-14. The government is much more intolerant and inflexible concerning protests and resistance.

Human rights, then and now

From the early seventies till date many human rights organisations have been founded. These organisations have been dealing with various issues from repression of women, the situation in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, ethnic minority rights, detention and arrests under the Special Powers Act, eviction of sex workers, minority rights, environment, land and forest grabbing, harassment by the law enforcement agencies and so on.

The early organisations include Mahila Parishad, Madaripur Legal Aid Association and Bangladesh Manabadhikar Bastabayan Sangstha. Ain O Salish Kendra was founded in 1986. In 1987, human rights organisations and NGOs formed a coalition, Coordination Committee for Human Rights, Bangladesh (CCHRB). Towards the mid-nineties, the other similar human rights bodies included Bangladesh Legal Aid Services (BLAST), Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association (BNWLA) and so on. The most recent is the state organisation, Bangladesh National Human Rights Commission.

Just until a couple of years ago, these organisations would immediately take up inquiries when any untoward incident occurred. They would then involve the media too. They would take legal measures and initiative for rehabilitation.

A number of long-standing activists said that the involvement of the media and civil society is essential in carrying out such action. A strong role of the court is also required. Over the past five or six years there have been no concerted efforts against sensitive human rights issues.

Over the past year, over 300 people have been killed in ‘gun fights’ during the anti-drug drive by the police and RAB. And over the past 10 years, 136 victims of forced disappearance remain missing. And a few thousand people were arrested during the last election.

Lawyer Palash Kumar Roy was arrested in April on charges of defaming the prime minister. He mysteriously died in a fire while in prison detention. Ruling party leaders and activists were involved in the gang rape of a woman on the night of the election. Many persons, including journalists, have been harassed and arrested under the Digital Security Act. In most case the human rights organisations have not taken up any significant programmes.

Philip Gain, executive director of Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD), told Prothom Alo, various organisations have been working against the destruction of forests and other issues, but success has been limited.

Many human rights activists have said the risks involved in their work have increased over the recent past. Registration and fund approval of such organisations have been made complicated. And intelligence agencies have stepped up their harassment.

All sorts of pressure

As they receive foreign funds, these human rights organisations have to be registered under the NGO Affairs Bureau in accordance to the Foreign Donation (Voluntary Activities) Regulation.

Veteran human rights activist Hamida Hossain, speaking to Prothom Alo, said this regulation is all right for accountability, but just to get approval of the bureau, you need clearance from the National Security Intelligence (NSI), the police’s Special Branch (SB) and the Directorate General Forces Intelligence (DGFI). She also pointed to the objectionable clauses in the Digital Security Act. She said that the government did not appear to be that eager about human rights organisations.

The human rights organisation Odhikar started in 1994. Its general secretary Adilur Rahman Khan was arrested in 2013 in connection with a list Odhikar had published of the persons killed during the Dhaka gathering of Hefazat-e-Islam. The bureau hasn’t been renewing the registration of the organisation after that.

Odhikar now basically collects information from the news dailies. Their monthly human rights report has now become quarterly. They only have one permanent staff member, the rest work on a voluntary basis. They too are under pressure. Odhikar volunteer and journalist in Mymensingh, Abdul Qayum, was recently arrested under charges of stealing a Facebook ID to post defamatory statements on social media.

Home minister Asaduzzaman Khan rejects the contention that the intelligence agencies have stepped up pressure and surveillance on human rights organisations and activists. Speaking to Prothom Alo, he said, “As if the intelligence agencies have nothing better to do that chase after human rights. I do not believe this.”

But there is evidence of such pressure. In 2014 Abu Bakr Siddique, husband of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA)’s chief executive Rizwana Hasan , was picked up on his way back from Narayanganj. He was later returned. The same year, an attempt was made to abduct former executive director of Ain O Salish Kendra, Nur Khan, on his way home from office in Lamatia of the capital city.

Activists of at least three non-government human rights organisations have said that in 2016 intelligence agency personnel has visited their homes and offices. They inquired about their personal details and political affiliations. The intelligence agencies now keep watch on the human rights cases and turn up at court too.

On 28 April, six human rights organisations including National Women’s Lawyers Association, filed a writ with the High Court concerning sexual harassment in educational institutions and workplaces. The intelligence agencies called up several activists to ask for the names of those involved in the matter.

What is the national human rights commission doing? The commission’s chairman Kazi Reazul Huq said they have written to the home ministry requesting for investigations in several incidents, but have received the invariable reply, “the matter is under investigation.”

Home minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said that national human rights commission sends the ministry letters from time to time. He said it is not true that the ministry overlooks these letters. Action is taken if the allegations are proven to be true.

The human rights organisations tend to play things safe at present. Their projects deal with relatively less sensitive issues. The activists say they try to provide assistance or legal aid on a personal basis. This was evident during the safe road movement and the quota reform movement. Some of the activists are similarly extending their support to ‘Mayer Dak’, the group comprising families of victims of forced disappearance.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, former caretaker government advisor and human rights activists Sultana Kamal said some of the organisations are making an effort, but it is not being possible to do anything effective. She said it is the fundamental responsibility of the state to address human rights violations. It is difficult for the non-government human rights organisations to work in this regard without support and cooperation of the executive and the judiciary.

* This piece appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir