08/29/2013 03:20 pm ET Updated Oct 29, 2013

The Arrest of Adilur Rahman Khan and the Threat to Bangladeshi Activists

The first time I met Adilur Rahman Khan was my very first time in Bangladesh. He and his human rights organization Odhikar had been helping us with our documentary on dowry violence, linking us up with advocates working with victims of abuse in Bangladeshi villages. Even then he told us, "You're sitting with a black-listed organization."

The second time I met Adilur Rahman Khan we were back in Bangladesh shooting a documentary on shrimp farming; a massively lucrative industry for the impoverished country, but plagued with problems. An extremely articulate, unabashed leftist, he spoke to us about exploited farmers, victims of land grabs and corrupt businessmen.

On August 10, Adilur Rahman Khan was arrested by plainclothes policemen just as he was returning home with his family. Accused of "fabricating information", he is currently held in Dhaka Central Jail, where he can be questioned by investigating officers.

A former deputy Attorney-General of Bangladesh and a practicing lawyer in the Supreme Court, Khan is well-respected among activists in Asia. His organization, Odhikar, regularly publishes reports on domestic abuse, labour exploitation and extrajudicial border killings, among other human rights issues.

Recent reports included one on clashes between protesters and police after major demonstrations in Bangladesh earlier this year turned violent. After speaking to family members of victims, Odhikar claimed that 61 people had been killed during clashes on 6 May. The government demanded that they hand over the information they had gathered, including the details of the families they had spoken to. Odhikar refused, suggesting instead that an independent commission be established. The government, denying the deaths, is now accusing Khan of falsifying the report.

But Md. Ashrafuzzaman Zaman from the Asian Human Rights Commission says these accusations are "utterly baseless."

"The process Odhikar followed during their fact-finding mission regarding the alleged 'massacre' of the demonstrators in the early hours of May 6, 2013 was highly credible," he writes in an email. "For example: the fact-finding teams collected the names of the missing persons, first. Then, they located their addresses and verified with the families regarding the missing-persons' fate, and got confirmation from the families and neighbours who confirmed whether the persons were really 'dead' or 'alive'. Thus, out of around 200 missing persons, who were enlisted as missing by the period when the fact-finding missions were conducted, 61 persons were found confirmed dead in the crackdown of the security forces at Motijheel Shapla Square in the early hours of 6 May."

Odhikar were not the only ones to report on deaths from the violent clashes of May 6. Media outlets like Al Jazeera English carried similar reports.

Although a matter of great concern to family and friends, Khan's well-being is not the only issue. A day after his arrest, police officers searched Odhikar's premises and confiscated three laptops and two computers. The computers, belonging to the documentation unit, contained details from fact-finding reports the organization had worked on over the years, including the personal information of victims they had spoken to.

"Odhikar is concerned that such information may be distorted by the authorities and the security and rights of the victims and witnesses violated," the organization stated in a press release.
Observers believe that this whole episode has little to do with flimsy accusations, and is instead an effort by the government to stifle Bangladeshi civil society and frighten activists. It won't be the first time; the Bangladeshi government -- regardless of the party in power -- is no stranger to clamping down on dissent.

"The space a vibrant civil society in a 'democracy' should have does not exist there in Bangladesh," Zaman explains. "If someone like Adilur Rahman Khan, who has remained outspoken on human rights issues for the last 15 years, faces such extreme forms of state and non-state attacks, the country's democratic process itself will be seriously affected. The dedicated rights activists will be highly demoralised. The nation will waste a long time to recover the damage being caused by such constant attacks on rights activists."

Colleagues, friends and family of Khan have come together to campaign for his release, but the effort is somewhat small, and activists are concerned for their own security. Local human rights defenders volunteering with Odhikar who had organised protests in their districts now find themselves subjects of interest in Bangladeshi's intelligence agencies, which is why it is now important for the campaign to be no only about Khan's safety, but that of all human rights defenders in the country.

"In the last few months the increased visibility of political violence and militarisation of politicized law enforcement agencies has lead to the persecution of human rights defenders," says Rezaur Rahman, executive director of Law Life Culture, an organisation monitoring the treatment of human rights activists. "This erodes the basic freedom of human rights defenders throughout the country, and detracts from the human rights of all. Therefore, the primary task is for every human rights organization and its defenders to defend Adilur and his organization, their human rights defenders and family."