The Bangladeshi government canceled the registration of one of the country's top human rights organizations this week, triggering outrage across the international human rights community.
A June 5 order from the government canceled the registration, or operating license, of Bangladesh-based Odhikar. Founded in 1994, the organization is known for its regular documentation of human rights violations in the country, working closely with the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and other international rights groups.
The NGO Affairs Bureau, a wing of the Bangladeshi prime minister's office, issued the order, stating that "the activities of the organization are not satisfactory."
Odhikar "created various issues against Bangladesh by spreading propaganda against the state by publishing misleading information on its own website about various extrajudicial killings, including alleged disappearances and murders," the order said. It added that the organization “has seriously tarnished the image of the state to the world."
Accusations of rights violations
The security agencies in Bangladesh have long been accused of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and other serious human rights violations.
In December 2021, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite paramilitary force of Bangladesh, for its dismal human rights record. Odhikar regularly documented human rights violations by the RAB.
Since the beginning of this year, Odhikar has reported that the rights groups accusing RAB and other security agencies of rights violations were facing reprisals from the government.
For years, Odhikar has been facing persecution because of its work, Adilur Rahman Khan, the organization's secretary, told VOA.
"In 2014, we sought to renew the registration of Odhikar to receive foreign donations. But our application for renewal of the registration with the NGO Affairs Bureau has remained pending for eight years, critically hindering our ability to conduct human rights monitoring and reporting," said Khan, who has received several international human rights awards.
In 2019, Odhikar filed a writ petition to the High Court seeking renewal of its registration, and in May, the hearing on this matter resumed in the court, he said.
"Now, in the midst of the hearing, the NGO Affairs Bureau has arbitrarily canceled Odhikar's registration, bypassing the judicial process, in another attempt to stall our human rights work in the country."
Despite several attempts, VOA failed to get a comment from the NGO Affairs Bureau. The director of the bureau did not respond to queries from VOA.
Rights advocates see red flag
Rights advocates have condemned the action against Odhikar in strong terms.
Eleven human rights groups, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, said in a statement June 9 that Bangladeshi authorities should immediately reverse their decision to deregister Odhikar.
Nur Khan Liton, a well-known rights activist in Bangladesh, called the cancellation of Odhikar's registration an "autocratic action" by the government.
"By canceling the registration of Odhikar, the government has aimed to warn individuals and groups against raising their voices against human rights violations in the country," Liton told VOA.
The arbitrary deregistration of Odhikar is a serious red flag, said Matthew Smith, CEO of the rights group Fortify Rights.
"The authorities can't improve the country's human rights record by arbitrarily deregistering its leading human rights organization," Smith told VOA.
The reprisal against Odhikar is "an egregious and shameless act to silence and intimidate human rights defenders" in Bangladesh, said Saad Hammadi, South Asia campaigner for Amnesty International.
"Odhikar's deregistration is a clear demonstration of the government's anger about the credibility the human rights organization enjoys internationally," Hammadi said.
Deregistration ‘outrageous, unacceptable’
Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman, liaison officer of the Hong Kong-based Asian Legal Resource Centre, noted that Odhikar is the most prominent Bangladesh-based human rights organization, and its deregistration was a big blow to the human rights community as well as to the victims.
"The Sheikh Hasina regime, which accuses rights group Odhikar of 'tarnishing the country's image,' has adopted the policy of using enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and systemic torture under arbitrary detention as tools against the dissidents and political opponents," Ashrafuzzaman told VOA. Sheikh Hasina had served as the prime minister of Bangladesh from 1996 to 2001, and she assumed office again in 2009.
Calling the decision to deny the registration "outrageous and unacceptable," Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division, said that the government's action was "nothing less than a full-frontal assault" on human rights defenders such as Odhikar who dare to speak truth to power about the government's systematic rights violations.
"Ever since Hasina returned as prime minister, the authorities have subjected Odhikar staff to intrusive surveillance and harassment and made politically motivated attacks on the organization's work and findings," Robertson told VOA.
"The NGO Affairs Bureau under the PM's Office exists not to regulate or support civil society groups but rather to exercise control, violate freedom of association, and bar access to foreign funds, and Odhikar has borne the brunt of all this discriminatory government treatment over the years," Robertson said.
Dhaka-based diplomats, U.N. agencies, and the wider international community should pressure the Bangladesh government to immediately and unconditionally restore Odhikar's license to operate, Robertson added.
"The Bangladesh government uses misleading information all the time, so this accusation against Odhikar — that the organization is tarnishing the country's image — is a clear example of the pot calling the kettle black," he said.
Reporting on human rights violations is "not anti-government or anti-state," Amnesty's Hammadi noted. He said the government’s “decision to deregister Odhikar is akin to shooting the messenger.”