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Beyond the headlines: Bangladesh takes on human rights defenders?

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

The government in Bangladesh doesn’t appear to care about the optics of jailing a leading Human Rights Defender (HRD). Not surprisingly, international organisations and foreign embassies are appalled. Bangladesh is currently drowning in a sea of global condemnation. The case is going to shape the future of foreign involvement in the region. All sides are making dangerous precedents. Sanctions and threats are being made. It doesn’t look good. Who will win?

But for those that have followed the case. Odhikar, an HRD based in Bangladesh, took information from a highly biased source, failed to verify it, and refused to retract their report despite intense media focus on the issue when it was clear their figures were wrong. A win for Bangladesh’s media. Odhikar deliberately lied about “61 people” being killed in a police raid on Islamist fundamentalists on May 6th, 2013, in Dhaka. Operation Shapla, the focus of the trial, was brutal, there is no denying it. But Odhikar, a controversial NGO with ties to the former BNP-Jamaat government, soft sold the reasons behind the raid, the violence from Islamist radicals who were the targets of the raid, and vastly overinflated the casualties and fatalities. The case is clear cut, but the fallout is a mess. Those willing to look at the case in a little more depth should not and cannot defend Odhikar’s actions. But what should be done?

While I was speaking to the head of a leading HRD that works in region, who did not want to be named, they said, “We have issued retractions in the past. Everyone must trust us. We must get it 100% right or aim for it.” Odhikar refused to bow to the government of Bangladesh out of pride or politics. It refused to retract a blatantly false report. The Daily Star, Bangladesh’s leading newspaper said Odhikar’s source was, “a list riddled with holes.” Odhikar have become a cause celebre in the HRD community as a result. I’m not sure how much damage that will do to other HRDs working in Bangladesh. But trust is at an all-time low. Bangladesh is now torn. It’s clear Odhikar lied and made a political circus out of the trial. It’s clear the government overreacted to it by jailing Adilur Rahman Khan and Nasiruddin Elan. It’s clear if the government had censored Odhikar in other ways they have been accused of harassment. In fact, they were. So, who polices HRDs? What happens when they lie or caught deliberately playing with their figures? Are they a law unto themselves?

Bangladesh is unfortunately a nation that nobody really understands. There are a few South Asia experts working on development or security that focus on it, some in the United Nations family, and the most are the diaspora who have moved into media and human rights fields. But to most of the western world it’s a mysterious nation. We only hear about disasters. Human-caused and natural. Unfortunately for Bangladesh all its hard work and progress is still in the shadow of Pakistan and India despite overtaking Pakistan on key development and economic goals. Bangladesh has been touted as a model for human development, women’s empowerment, and tackling terrorism. A decade or so ago there was talk in London and Washington about making Bangladesh the model for development in Muslim world. But, this week, Bangladesh jailed the leaders of Odhikar. A human rights organisation and HRD. It crossed a line for most.

The Bangladeshi government and Awami League supporters say it is proof that HRDs are political actors willing to falsify data to throw mud at the incumbent government. The recent trial of Odhikar proves that claim. But Bangladesh does not have the international goodwill and capital to push back effectively on the global condemnation. It’s a bad time for HRDs, truth, and justice. Bangladesh must realise the global environment it’s in. Bangladesh must play the game. It stood up the USA and others when they tried to interfere with the war crimes tribunals in the past.

Bangladesh won that time, but those who once opposed Sheikh Hasina’s hardball tactics in foreign capitals are now circling looking for revenge. Can Bangladesh do it again? The odds are not looking good. But Bangladesh is a nation that can do. It will be interesting to see how it navigates the issue while the US Embassy in Dhaka is posting #FreeKhan and #FreeElan on social media.


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