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Bangladesh Court Sentences Human Rights Activists Amid Election Tensions

In a move criticized as part of a pre-election crackdown, a Bangladesh court has sentenced two well-known human rights activists to two years in prison. Adilur Rahman Khan and Nasiruddin Elan, affiliated with the rights group Odhikar, have consistently denied allegations dating back a decade that they disseminated a report containing false information. Prosecutors argued that their 2013 report on security force killings had a detrimental effect on the country’s reputation.

The verdict was handed down in Dhaka after a protracted ten-year legal process. Numerous international human rights organizations have called for the immediate release of Khan and Elan, asserting that they were not afforded a fair trial.

Both activists have dedicated decades to documenting thousands of alleged extrajudicial killings, disappearances of opposition activists, and instances of police brutality in Bangladesh. Their conviction is related to a report published by Odhikar in 2013, which detailed security forces’ actions during a protest led by an Islamist group seeking to impose a stricter form of religion on Bangladeshi society. The report documented that at least 61 individuals, including children, were killed during an overnight operation in Dhaka aimed at dispersing protesters.

Khan and Elan were initially detained shortly after the report’s publication but were later released on bail. The charges were resurrected by prosecutors only recently.

Prosecutor Nazrul Islam Shamim stated, “They were sentenced to two years in jail for publishing and disseminating false information, causing offense to religious sentiments, and tarnishing the state’s image.”

Human Rights Watch has pointed out that prosecutorial action in their case did not progress until 2021, following US sanctions against Bangladesh’s elite paramilitary force for their alleged involvement in hundreds of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings since 2009.

Last week, the United Nations emphasized that both men had faced harassment and intimidation while on bail. Rights groups have decried the trial’s “due process violations,” including the failure to provide the defense with crucial information until a day before the hearing.

A statement signed by 39 international rights groups highlighted the government’s interference with Odhikar’s ability to conduct human rights work, including blocking access to funds and delaying the renewal of its registration application since 2014.

Critics have accused Sheikh Hasina’s government of targeting activists and political opponents since she assumed leadership in 2009, a charge she denies. Last year, the government revoked Odhikar’s operating license, accusing the organization of tarnishing the country’s image.

Under Khan’s and Elan’s leadership, Odhikar had collaborated closely with the UN and international human rights groups, with its reports being cited in US State Department country reports. The imprisonment of these activists occurs just four months before Bangladesh’s upcoming general election and amid growing calls for ensuring free and fair polls.