Smear campaign against leading human rights group, as elections loom

Association

Campaign to discredit human rights group, Odhikar

Ahead of elections on 30th December 2018, a smear campaign has been unleashed by government-aligned media in Bangladesh against local human rights group Odhikar.

In the latest spate of incidents, the Election Commission of Bangladesh abruptly cancelled the Odhikar’s registration as an election observer on 8th November 2018, saying that the state-run NGO Affairs Bureau (NGOAB) had notified them that the organisation’s registration had expired.

On 11th November 2018, the daily Janakantha newspaper published an article accusing Odhikar of being involved in various “anti-state and anti-government activities”, engaged in “conspiracy against the country”. It claimed the group was “tarnishing the country’s image by providing wrong information to the international community regarding elections and the human rights situation” in Bangladesh.

The reporter also alleged that intelligence agencies recommended that Odhikar immediately suspend activities. It claimed the group had violated NGO regulations, unlawfully taken funds from donor agencies and had suspicious bank accounts. Odhikar has denied the accusations and called them completely false and fabricated.

Since then, other media reports have surfaced calling for Odhikar’s activities to be stopped, alleging anti-state actions among them, a report by private TV channel, Channel 1 on November 16, accusing the organisation of embezzling funds.

Global civil society alliance CIVICUS said:

“This damaging smear campaign to discredit the work of an organisation committed to upholding human rights is extremely alarming for civil society and civic freedoms in Bangladesh…these actions are unjustifiable intimidation tactics and highlight a pattern of demonising human rights defenders who are critical of the government."

Since 2014, the NGO Affairs Bureau (NGOAB), state agency, has deliberately subjected Odhikar to bureaucratic delays to deprive the organisation of financial resources, while also withholding the renewal of its mandatory registration. The group is currently unable to receive foreign funding. Odhikar has previously been publicly threatened by the police for carrying out “subversive” activities” after documenting a spate of extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh in 2013. Activists working with Odhikar have come under surveillance, been targeted and arbitrarily detained for their activities.

In August 2018, Bangladesh was added to the CIVICUS Monitor Watchlist of countries where there is an alarming escalation in threats to civil society.

Expression

Renowned photographer Shahidul Alam freed on bail

On 20th November 2018, Bangladesh authorities released Shahidul Alam on bail following his arrest in August 2018 for comments he made during mass student protests. He had spent 107 days in jail.

As previously documented by the CIVICUS Monitor, 63-year-old, Shahidul Alam, a well-known photojournalist and activist was detained on 5th August 2018, hours after giving an interview to Al-Jazeera English on student protests in Dhaka. He was charged a day later under Section 57 of the Information Communication and Technology Act for making "false" and "provocative" statements.

Alam, was freed from Dhaka Central Jail after being granted bail on 17th November 2018. He told reporters that he hoped his release would "signal freedom for many others" also detained during the demonstrations. "It is a fantastic feeling to be free in a free country, breathing free air. But I hope for freedom for everyone else," he said.

Amnesty International Deputy South Asia Director, Omar Waraich said:

“It is wonderful to see Shahidul Alam released on bail, he should never have been arrested in the first place. The charges against him, and others who have been locked up for peacefully exercising their human rights, should be immediately and unconditionally dropped."

Bangladesh currently ranks 146th in the Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index. In an illustration of the concerted pressure on freedom of expression, it has slipped 28 places from 118th when the index began in 2002.

European Parliament issues resolution on human rights concerns

On 13th November 2018, the European Parliament (EP) issued a resolution on the human rights situation in Bangladesh. It condemned “the arrests and violence against people who exercised their freedom of expression to criticise the government” and “deeply regrets the Government’s decision to enact the Digital Security Act which expands and reinforces the powers of the police to crackdown on free speech, including on social media, ahead of national elections in 2018".

The EP called “on the Bangladesh authorities to urgently revise the Information and Communication Technology Act and bring [it] in conformity with the international conventions on human rights to which Bangladesh is a party”. It also strongly condemned “the detention of Shahidul Alam and called for his immediate and unconditional release".

The resolution also called for “an EU-wide ban on the export, sale, update and maintenance of any form of security equipment which can be or is used for internal repression, including internet surveillance technology to states with a worrying human rights record, such as Bangladesh”.

The EP urged the High Representative and Vice-President Federica Mogherini and the European Commission “to assess the current backsliding of Bangladesh in relation to democracy, human rights and the rule of law in terms of Bangladesh’s commitments under the Everything But Arms scheme”. The Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme grants full duty free and quota free access to the EU Single Market for all products (except arms and armaments).

Peaceful Assembly

Rohingya refugee protests against their repatriation 

A plan to begin repatriating hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees to Myanmar stalled on 15th November 2018, amid protests by refugees at camps in Bangladesh. Hundreds of Rohingya refugees shout slogans as they protested against their repatriation at the Unchiprang camp in Teknaf, near the border with Myanmar.

As previously documented in the CIVICUS Monitor, more than 700,000 Rohingya women, men, and children were forced to flee from northern Rakhine State in Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh after 25 August 2017, when the Myanmar security forces launched a widespread and systematic assault on hundreds of Rohingya villages.

While Bangladeshi authorities had begun preparations to repatriate an initial batch of 2,200 Rohingya to Myanmar, there have been serious doubts about the viability of the plan. It has been opposed by Rohingya at camps in Bangladesh and the UN refugee agency and aid groups, who fear for the safety of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

Rohingya protesters chanted “No, no, we won’t go,” at the Unchiprang camp. Some also waved placards that said “We want justice” and “We will never return to Myanmar without our citizenship".

On 26th November 2018, Rohingya refugees staged another protest in several refugee camps against the UN refugee agency for refusing to identify their ethnicity as Rohingya on smart cards issued to them. The protesters also urged aid groups not to share their biometric data and copies of documents with Myanmar officials who they fear might use the information against them.