BANGLADESH: Restrictive environment for human rights defenders ahead of the 2013 elections

Urgent Appeal

Paris-Geneva, December 7, 2012. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), expresses concerns about the restrictive environment for human rights defenders in Bangladesh, after it completed a fact-finding mission in the country on November 22, 2012.

Bg-map“With the existing polarised political context and increasing tensions ahead of the upcoming 2013 general elections, human rights defenders are put at further risk of human rights violations”, the mission stated upon its completion. The Observatory mission, which was carried out from November 14 to 22, 2012, investigated on the environment in which NGO workers, journalists, environmentalists, lawyers and trade union leaders are carrying out their human rights activities. “While laws have become a tool used by the State to hinder the work of and suppress dissident voices through judicial harassment, a lack of proper judicial safeguards and remedies has allowed for the culture of impunity to continue”, it added.

In Bangladesh, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture in custody occur regularly. From July 1, 2008 to September 30, 2012, a total of 506 extra-judicial killings were reported, and for the year 2011 alone, 30 enforced disappearance cases were documented by FIDH and OMCT member-organisation Odhikar. Both State and non-State actors are allegedly involved in such human rights violations. One of the recent cases includes the killing of labour leader Aminul Islam in April 2012.

Too often, when such violations occur, there is no prompt and proper investigation. This produces a climate of fear and culture of impunity. In such a context, individuals and organisations documenting such abuses and crimes can be exposed to reprisals.

Some editors, reporters and journalists who denounce unlawful practices or disclose sensitive information about corruption reported facing indirect or direct threats to their safety. This sometimes has led to self-censorship. In this context, Just News BD journalist Mutafizur Rahman Sumon was imprisoned in July 2012 and ill-treated for campaigning against the impunity for crimes against journalists - such as the murder of journalists Sagar Sarowar and Meherun Runi on February 11, 2012. A reporter with RTV Channel, Mr. Bayezid Ahmed, has also been facing threats by unknown individuals after he unveiled a case of corruption within the Railway Ministry early October 2012.

The mission found that judicial harassment is another major concern, as a number of lawyers, journalists, trade unionists or environmentalists reporting on human rights violations have faced numerous spurious charges – often brought before a biased judiciary. Such cases, which can last months or even years, are used as another means to silence the denunciation of human rights violations.

The mission delegates also witnessed a number of legal and practical obstacles to the activities of human rights NGOs, whose projects are often delayed or arbitrarily refused by the government’s NGO Affairs Bureau. Such obstacles could potentially intensify against human rights organisations as an NGO Bill on “foreign funding” is currently being drafted.

In addition, the trade union environment is polarised along the two main political parties, and the few independent unions that exist face obstacles to their work. In particular, the legislative and political framework presents many obstacles to the formation and functioning of trade unions.

The Observatory will release a fact-finding mission report in 2013 that will outline detailed conclusions and recommendations. The document will be directed - in particular - to the Government of Bangladesh, the United Nations (UN) and the European Union.

Accordingly, the Observatory urges the Bangladeshi authorities to fully conform in all circumstances with the provisions of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and other human rights instruments ratified by Bangladesh, notably by:

- putting an end to any kind of threats and harassment - including at the judicial level - against human rights defenders;

- carrying out prompt, impartial and transparent investigations into abuses and violations committed against human rights defenders, and sanctioning all those responsible according to the law;

- refraining from detaining any human rights defenders arbitrarily as a means to silence their human rights activities;

- ensuring the enjoyment of freedom of association for all human rights NGOs in line with Articles 5 and 13 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

The Observatory also hopes that the newly-created National Human Rights Commission will be able to play a more pro-active role in protecting human rights activists in line with the Paris Principles.

Contact information:
· FIDH: Arthur Manet / Audrey Couprie: +33 1 43 55 25 18
· OMCT: Delphine Reculeau: +41 22 809 49 39

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