Was it only Odhikar that made 'errors' in the Hefazat incident numbers?

Adilur Rahman, secretary of human rights organisation Odhikar, was taken away by prison van after the court verdict
Prothom Alo

The incidents surrounding the Hefazat rally and sit-in that took place on 5 May 2013 is certainly a matter that created a commotion in the state. The agitation and maelstrom that suddenly erupted over the rally, still has an impact on politics today. But no one can say for certain that all questions pertaining to that incident have been answered. From the government side it is said that, in order to bring the situation under control, the law enforcement agencies used minimum force to remove those who had taken up position in Hefazat rally. There still remains confusion over the number of persons killed in the incident.

The headlines of a report published on 9 November 2013 in Samakal read, 'White paper on Hefazat's mayhem'. The report had two bits of information, 'number of deaths 39' and 'demand to ban Jamaat'. The white paper was published by a people's commission headed by Justice Syed Amirul Islam. Member secretary of the commission was leader of the Ekattorer Ghatok Dalal Nirmul Committee (committee against the collaborators of 1971) leader and writer, journalist Shahriar Kabir. The Samakal report said that as the government did not take any initiative to form a commission, the Ekattur Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee took it upon themselves to form a people's commission.

The white paper published by the people's commission stated after the Hefazat activists were removed from the Shapla Chattar area on 5 May, BNP and Hefazat claimed that thousands of people had been killed. The people's commission got a list of 79 names from Hefazat. Amnesty said 40. About Odhikar, it was said they changed their numbers a few times and finally arrived at 61. The white paper said that the home ministry's list put the number at 28. The home ministry never published that list. Senior government persons, however, have at various time said that the number was 11.

In its white paper, the people's commission said that those figures were all exaggerated and incomplete. The families of four persons were present during the release of the white paper. Two of them were of Hefazat, one of Jamaat and one of Awami League. Each of those families was presented a cheque of Tk 10,000 at the event. They called for the government to provide the families of the killed persons with Tk 1 million (Tk 10 lakh) each.

It can be seen that there was a difference in the numbers quoted by the government and those by the home ministry, a difference by almost two-and-a-half times. The people's commission figures were also three-and-a-half times higher than the government's figures. The Amnesty figure referred to there was actually 44. In a statement on 7 May, Amnesty said that 3 members of the security forces and 41 civilians were killed in the violence erupting in and outside Dhaka on 5 and 6 may over the Hefazat rally. Human Rights Watch said that the number of killed persons was 58.

While there has been such a furore over the Odhikar list, the fact is that they did not publish any list at all, just the numbers. When the government asked them for a list, they said that only if a judicial commission was formed to look into the incident, would they hand over the list to the commission. They said that if the list was handed over to the government, the families of the killed persons may face the risk of harassment.

In the years that followed, the ruling party and Hefazat forged a bond, various demands of Hefazat were fulfilled and on the eve of the 2018 election, the prime minister was accorded the title 'Qawmi Janani' or 'Qawmi Mother'

The human rights organisations in various countries follow such methods, particularly if the allegations are against members of the law enforcement agencies. The families of victims of enforced disappearance have complained of harassment over such lists.

The government did not lodge any case against anyone else for creating unrest in the country or tarnishing the government's image abroad by publishing incorrect or fabricated numbers of killed persons. Cases were only against the two executives of Odhikar, Adilur Rahman Khan and Nasir Uddin. After the case was filed, they were arrested in August the same year. The question naturally arises as to whether they are targets of the government wrath for any special reason.

In the years that followed, the ruling party and Hefazat forged a bond, various demands of Hefazat were fulfilled and on the eve of the 2018 election, the prime minister was accorded the title 'Qawmi Janani' or 'Qawmi Mother'. In that context, the so-called offences of Odhikar should not be considered offences at all.

While arresting these two Odhikar executives, the computers in their office were seized and these have not been returned. Their lawyers say that the list handed over to the court by the police is not their list at all. But a section of the pro-government media maintains that their investigations reveal that living persons have been included on the list and concocted figures published. All sorts of propaganda were generated against Odhikar and its two executives, alleging that they were working on behalf of BNP and Jamaat to tarnish the government's image.

While Adilur Rahman Khan served as a deputy attorney general during the rule of the BNP coalition government, it has not been heard that he joined either BNP or Jamaat. Quite to the contrary Odhikar published a report on the number of people killed in the 2001 election violence. Similarly, it published a regular annual human rights report since 2004 with figures and details of crossfire, custodial deaths, repression of the minorities, joint forces operations, detention without trial and all sorts of human rights violations. It is because of the mindset and perception that has emerged because of the politicisation of various state institutions as well as the attorney general's office, that attempts are being made to portray Adilur Rahman as a political activist of BNP.

It may be recalled that the government has at various times officially objected to UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights and other human rights experts and committees working on behalf of the UN, cooperating with them, saying that Odhikar was spreading misleading information about the government out of political motives. The committee regarding enforced disappearances may be cited here. That is why 72 international organisations including Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, have alleged in their statement that ever since the US imposed sanctions on RAB, the government's harassment and pressure on Odhikar has stepped up. The next year the government rejected Odhikar's application to renew its registration. And after 2014, the government stopped their source of funding. So when the local and international human rights organisations term such continuous harassment as vengeance, it is hard to refute their contentions.

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Even after the deposition of witnesses in the case against Adilur Rahman and Nasir Uddin were completed, the state prosecution felt it necessary to investigate the matter anew 10 years after the incident, in order to prove them guilty

The case against Adilur Rahman and Nasir Uddin was filed under the ICT Act, the law that has already be changed twice -- first to the Digital Security Act and them to the Cyber Security Act. The final changes were made to the Cyber Security Act and it was passed in the parliament on the same day that the court convicted the Odhikar duo. This law is still being criticised at home and abroad as a repressive law that goes against freedom of expression.

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The UN Human Rights Council recommended that all the cases under the ICT Act and the Digital Security Act be repealed and the victims of these cases be compensated. Ironically, two human rights activists were convicted for the first time in the country's history under that very law.

Even after the deposition of witnesses in the case against Adilur Rahman and Nasir Uddin were completed, the state prosecution felt it necessary to investigate the matter anew 10 years after the incident, in order to prove them guilty. The court even gave permission for that unusual investigation and after the extended investigation, the trial was completed in the shortest time possible. So it is not at all surprising that questions are arising over this trial and the subsequent conviction.

* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition

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