by CR Abrar
October 10, 2014 marked the 20th anniversary of rights organisation Odhikar. Since its launch at the heyday of the military dictatorship of General Ershad, Odhikar has resolutely stood up for rights and dignity of ordinary people of Bangladesh. On the one hand, it championed civil and political rights and was at the forefront in taking the executive arm of the state when the latter indulged in extrajudicial killings, disappearances, custodial deaths, torture and other forms of degrading treatment and disenfranchisement of the population. On the other hand, it has tenaciously advocated rights and dignity of the ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and championed the cause of workers, women, transgender and other people who live on the margins of society.
Upholding the constitutional provisions with regard to democracy and human rights (Article 11), right to protection of the law (Article 31), protection of right to life and personal liberty (Article 32), safeguards as to arrest and detention (Article 33), freedom of assembly (Article 37), freedom of association (Article 38), and freedom of thought, conscience and speech (Article 39) have been high on Odhikar’s agenda over the last two decades. As a human rights organisation, Odhikar was unwavering in its commitment to uphold those lofty principles in letter and in spirit. All its activities were guided by the tenets of equality, human dignity and social justice.
Over the years, Odhikar has voiced deep and persistent concern on the excesses committed by the members of the law enforcement agencies in the form of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, custodial deaths, torture and inhumane treatment. Expressions of such concerns were not only limited to issuance of statements reacting to press reports, but mobilising trained human rights defenders on the ground to ensure the veracity of facts by talking with victims, members of their families, witnesses, and those in the locality including in the local administration.
Odhikar is aware that in its battle against the Goliath, the state, any chink in its armour can have disastrous consequences. Before issuing any statement or report on violation of rights, Odhikar makes sure that it has robust evidence assiduously collected to back up its claims. Needless to say, over the years, Odhikar reports have become an important and credible source of information for international watchdogs on rights as well as other stakeholders.
In a situation where the executive arm of the state enjoys disproportionate power vis-à-vis the legislative and the judiciary, the coercive apparatuses of the state enjoy near complete impunity, the statutory bodies such as the national election commission, human rights commission and anti-corruption commission have become mere appendages of the state, family ties, ill-gotten wealth and muscle power dominate the party political process, the civil society is subjected to character assassination, harassment and intimidation, the task of human rights defenders become ever more onerous and challenging. It is under such adverse circumstances, Odhikar continues to work on civil and political rights and earned the recognition to be a steadfast watchdog of rights in the country.
Odhikar’s persistent advocacy for a national law on torture, accession to the Convention on Torture and the ratification of the Rome Statutes of International Criminal Court have resulted in a domestic legislation on torture and ratification of the concerned international treaties on torture and the Rome Statutes.
For its principled position of upholding human rights irrespective of the party in power, Odhikar has incurred the wrath of successive governments in Bangladesh. The Ershad government was particularly displeased with Odihkar’s activism with hills people’s assertion of their rights. Odhikar also earned annoyance of Khaleda Zia’s first government when it opposed the Operation Clean Heart and subsequent creation of the Rapid Action Battalion. During her second term (2001–2006) for its neutral stand, Odhikar was barred from monitoring the Chittagong City Corporation elections; and programmes relating to its ‘Campaign for the Ratification of Rome Statutes’ were obstructed. In May 2006, Odhikar’s bold reporting on the alleged involvement of naval officers in the extrajudicial killing resulted in the picking up and intimidation of its director by personnel of naval intelligence during the tenure of the then caretaker government.
The erosion of the democratic space and human rights activism under the Awami League governments had thrown up major challenges for all those who stand up for rule of law and human dignity including Odhikar. Since 2009, key persons of the organisation became subjects of constant surveillance. On September 10, Adilur Rahman Khan, the secretary of Odhikar, was picked up without warrant by plainclothesmen claiming to represent the Detective Branch. Subsequently he was charged under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act 2006 (amended in 2009) and Section 505 (c) and 505 A of the Penal Code for publishing a fact-finding report on allegations of extrajudicial killings during the operation carried out by security forces in May 5–6, 2013 on the rally organised by Hefazat-e-Islam. After spending 62 days in jail, he was released on ad interim bail granted by the High Court. His colleague, Nasiruddin Elan, director of Odhikar, was also charged under the ICT Act and had to spend about a month in jail before being released on bail on superior court’s order. Around the same time, Odhikar office was raided by the police and its computers and documents were seized.
At the grass-roots level, the 400-strong human rights defenders of Odhikar in 40 districts of the country are enduring pressure and surveillance of varying degree from the local administration. Their efforts to bring out rallies and demonstration on human rights violations are thwarted by either denial of permission or the use of force.
While surveillance and intimidation of its staff and office bearers by members of various law enforcement and intelligence agencies continue, all of its projects, including the ones that received the NGO Bureau’s clearance earlier have been brought to a halt. The bureau has refused to give clearance to pending projects, including innocuous ones such as violence against women and minorities during elections while the Anti-Corruption Commission has become hyperactive in scruitinising Odhikar’s funding sources and financial reports. Needless to say, such a hostile environment has taken toll on the staff members of organisation and some trained members had to leave the organisation for personal security concerns as well as for fund constraints.
Thus, one may conclude that Odhikar’s 20-year journey has not been an easy one. Despite all odds, the organisation has been at the forefront in championing human rights and freedom, and dignity for all in Bangladesh. One only hopes that the current state of aberration will be short-lived and the rule of law and reason will soon return to this land for which martyrs have paid so dearly over generations.
CR Abrar teaches international relations at the University of Dhaka.
He is president of Odhikar.