Bangladesh scrapping rights group’s licence a ‘chilling message’

Dhaka, Bangladesh – The Bangladesh government has cancelled the operating licence of one of its top human rights groups, in a move critics say is intended to send a “chilling message” to the rights defenders in the country.

Odhikar, the rights group, on Sunday said Bangladesh’s NGO Affairs Bureau, which comes under the remit of the prime minister’s office, refused to renew its licence, accusing the group of “tarnishing the image of the state to the world”.

Odhikar had been raising human rights issues in the South Asian country since its foundation in 1994. It worked closely with the United Nations in recording thousands of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances allegedly perpetrated by the Bangladeshi security forces.

The group had documented alleged rights abuses by Bangladesh’s notorious Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite police unit sanctioned by the United States in December last year.

The RAB is accused of involvement in hundreds of disappearances and nearly 600 extrajudicial killings since 2018.

Since the US sanctions, Dhaka on multiple occasions asked Washington to reconsider its decision. In April this year, Bangladesh’s foreign minister A K Abdul Momen even said he had sought New Delhi’s help to get the sanction on RAB and some of its officials withdrawn.

The US sanctions stopped extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh for nearly two months, according to local media reports and top government officials, who were seen gloating about the improvement in the human rights situation in various public forums.

Against such a backdrop, cancelling the licence of a top human rights body is counterintuitive, analysts say.

“This move by Dhaka sends a chilling message that the government doesn’t care about repairing its rights record and that it wants to control the narrative about rights issues in Bangladesh – a narrative that always comes across as more credible when it’s articulated by an NGO like Odhikar as opposed to the government,” Michael Kugelman, South Asia analyst at the US-based Woodrow Wilson Center, told Al Jazeera.

“If Bangladesh is trying to prove that it’s taking the steps that warrant the removal of US sanctions, then it’s shooting itself in the foot by making this move with Odhikar. It’s certainly not going to make Washington any more confident that Dhaka is genuinely committed to improving its human rights record,” said Kugelman.

In April this year, Odhikar said in a statement the government was retaliating against the NGOs that accused the RAB of rights abuses.

Among the measures taken by the government was the monitoring of foreign funding received by the rights groups, the statement said, citing a leaked government circular from January.

The circular stated that “foreign donations of some NGOs including Human Rights Watch, Odhikar, Ain o Salish Kendra and BLAST could be monitored strictly”.

Bangladesh’s home minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal accused Odhikar of publishing “misleading information”. “These NGOs are working with propaganda. They are not trustworthy,” he told Al Jazeera.

Kamal, however, said his ministry – which has the jurisdiction over RAB – had “nothing to do” with the cancellation of Odhikar’s licence. “My ministry didn’t influence this decision,” he said.

However, the June 5 order issued by the NGO Affairs Bureau and obtained by Al Jazeera carried language similar to Kamal’s.

“[Misleading] information about various extrajudicial killings, including alleged disappearances and murders, has been published on the organisation’s own website, creating various issues against Bangladesh,” it said, according to Odhikar’s statement.

“There is no opportunity to consider the application for renewal of the registration submitted by Odhikar as the activities of the organisation are not satisfactory due to inconsistencies in the application for renewal of registration,” it added.

Odhikar secretary Adilur Rahman Khan told Al Jazeera his organisation has been operating in “a regulatory limbo” since it sought to renew its 10-year licence in 2014.

He said the NGO Affairs Bureau neither rejected nor renewed its registration – until this week.

“We went to the court challenging that inaction. Interestingly, we had a hearing scheduled today [Wednesday],” he said. “But just days before, they cancelled our licence even though the issue is under trial. This is unethical and unacceptable.”

‘Egregious and shameless act’

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the Bangladesh government “appears determined to prove that all concerns over its human rights record are justified”.

“When the US has issued sanctions against the Rapid Action Battalion and several of its serving and former officers, the government chose only to blame human rights groups, not the security personnel and other officials that have presided over hundreds of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings,” she told Al Jazeera.

“Nor did it act on ensuring accountability and reparations. Above all, the authorities blamed Odhikar, a human rights group that has already targeted repeatedly, their funds held up, offices raided, surveillance.”

In a statement, Amnesty International said the authorities in Bangladesh “must immediately rescind the decision to arbitrarily deregister” Odhikar and allow the rights group “to function without fear of reprisals”.

“Odhikar’s documentation of human right violations have been critical in holding perpetrators to account in Bangladesh. It is absurd that the authorities withheld the registration of the rights group for eight years and then cancelled it because of the global ire they faced for a poor human rights record. The reprisals against Odhikar are an egregious and shameless act to silence and intimidate human rights defenders in Bangladesh,” said Saad Hammadi, South Asia Campaigner at Amnesty International.

Bangladeshi journalist and commentator Nazmul Ahasan told Al Jazeera that freezing its funding, or arrests and legal harassment of its leaders will “not stop Odhikar from stubbornly documenting violations of human rights” in Bangladesh.

“But the cancellation of its registration is particularly dangerous because it would fundamentally restrict Odhikar’s ability to carry out human rights work within the country and expose it to more legal and other persecution,” he said.

Josef Benedict, Asia Pacific researcher at the global rights organisation CIVICUS said the cancellation of the rights group’s registration is “another blow to the already appalling human rights record of Bangladesh”.

“It sends a negative message the outside world that civil society groups and human rights defenders who speak up on human rights issues will be intimidated and silenced. The government must reverse this egregious decision and instead take steps to create an enabling environment for civil society to undertake their work without reprisals,” he told Al Jazeera.

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