Open Letter to Mrs. Begum Khalida Zia, Prime Minister of Bangladesh

Press release

Open Letter to Mrs. Begum Khalida Zia,
Prime Minister of Bangladesh

Paris-Geneva, June 10, 2004

Dear Mrs. Begum Khalida Zia,

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint Programme of FIDH and OMCT, wishes to express its deepest concern about the situation of human rights defenders and independent non-governmental organizations in Bangladesh.

In particular, the arrest and detention of two leading members of Proshika, a development NGO in Bangladesh working on women rights and voter education, is of deep concern to the Observatory. On May 22, 2004, Dr. Qazi Faruque Ahmed was arrested while returning from the High Court, and Mr. David William Biswas was arrested at his home. Both were charged with mismanagement of funds and fraud under Section 402 of the Criminal Code. They are both eligible for bail, however, they have been denied bail by the lower court. The Observatory is concerned about their health since Dr. Ahmad is a severe diabetic and Mr. Biswas is partially paralyzed.

The Observatory fears that these arrests are aimed at preventing the organisation from continuing its human rights activities. Proshika has been targeted by the authorities since the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) won the last election, in October 2001, and for the past two years has been under investigation for alleged mismanagement of funds. It has also been accused of being involved in political activities, however, according to the information received, there has been no evidence supporting these accusations. During the investigations, Proshika, like other Bangladeshi NGOs, has not been allowed to receive foreign funding, clearly hindering their ability to carry out their work.

The Observatory also wishes to highlight the situation of Ms. Aroma Dutta, director of PRIP Trust (an NGO working in humanitarian and social fields) and member of the Proshika Executive Board. The Observatory has received information from a reliable source that Ms. Dutta has been subjected to threats and harassment since 2001. Recently she went to New York to appear as a witness in a hearing on repression of religious freedom in Bangladesh, organized by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom on April 30, 2004. According to information received, Bangladeshi authorities threatened to arrest her upon her return to Dhaka and she was therefore escorted by US Embassy officials when she arrived on May 7, 2004. Ms. Dutta has felt is necessary to obtain anticipatory bail to protect herself and her family, in the event of her arbitrary arrest.

The criminalization of human rights activities in Bangladesh has become increasingly serious in the past months. The Observatory expressed its concerns in April 2004 about a proposed Amendment Bill to the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulations Ordinance that presented a serious threat to the independence of NGOs and an attempt to place human rights NGOs under strict political control.
The government is contributing to the dangerous climate face by human rights defenders by discrediting human rights NGOs. Slanderous statements made May 31, 2004 by Mr. Matiur Rahman Nizami, Bangladesh Minister of Industries, referred to the advocacy work of the Human Rights Congress for Bangladesh Minorities as planned propaganda intended to depict the country as fundamentalist. Such an effort to discredit and defame human rights and development NGOs contributes to an atmosphere of insecurity for human rights defenders, and impunity for their attackers.
The Observatory strongly urges the Bangladeshi authorities to comply with the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, especially article 1, which states that ?Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels,? and article 13, which states that, ?Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to solicit, receive and utilize resources for the express purpose of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms through peaceful means.?

More generally, the Observatory urges the Bangladeshi authorities to comply with international human rights standards included in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and other international law instruments ratified by Bangladesh.
Sincerely yours,

President of FIDH Director of OMCT

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