Bangladesh: Human rights defenders targeted for political reasons

Bangladesh human rights defenders Adilur Rahman Khan and ASM Nasiruddin Elan are on trial for denouncing extrajudicial executions and face up to 10 years in prison © DR

10 August 2023

The Bangladesh authorities should cease their continued criminalisation and harassment of Bangladesh human rights group, Odhikar, 21 human rights groups said today. Authorities should drop politically-motivated charges against Odhikar’s leaders, Adilur Rahman Khan and ASM Nasiruddin Elan.

On 10 August 2013, Adilur Rahman Khan, secretary of Odhikar and a prominent human rights activist was arbitrarily detained after the group published a report investigating extrajudicial killings and excessive use of force to disperse a protest in Bangladesh. Adilur Rahman Khan’s whereabouts remained unknown for several hours until the police filed a case against him under the Information and Communication Technology Act, 2006, a law considered so draconian that certain provisions of it were replaced by the government in 2018 when the Digital Security Act was adopted.

Adilur Rahman Khan was held in custody for 62 days, while ASM Nasiruddin Elan, who was detained later, was held in custody for 25 days. Both were released on bail.

Ten years later, Adilur Rahman Khan and ASM Nasiruddin Elan continue to be prosecuted for trumped-up allegations of publishing “fake, distorted, and defamatory” material. Their lawyers have alleged judicial harassment at the Cyber Tribunal of Dhaka, saying it has unduly favoured the prosecution. Government officials, including senior members of the cabinet, have repeatedly and publicly criticised Odhikar for its human rights work.

Following years of stalling, the government accelerated hearings in their case especially following the designation of US sanctions against the country’s abusive Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and its officials in December 2021, which Bangladesh authorities blame on human rights groups like Odhikar. Khan and Elan have appeared for all scheduled hearings at the Cyber Tribunal, sometimes being forced to stand in cages.

The judge finally closed the examination of witnesses on 5 April 2023 but then permitted the prosecution to submit an application for further investigation without specifying what component of the case would be subject to further investigation. The judge rejected the objections of Odhikar’s lawyers against further investigation after the closure of the examination of witnesses and wrote in his order that the decision was made with the consent of both parties. On this occasion, the judge also ordered three international observers from the Swiss, UN, and US missions to leave the court without explanation.

The assignment to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to conduct a “further investigation” after the announcement of the closure of the examination of prosecution witnesses without a valid reason raises concerns about fair due process.

The supplementary investigation report of the CID was submitted to the Metropolitan Magistrate Court on 22 June. Khan and Elan appeared in court as scheduled on 9 July, but were told that the Cyber Tribunal had not yet received the updated file. The next day, they learned that the Cyber Tribunal had set 17 July as the next hearing to examine the new witnesses identified in the CID’s further investigations. Khan and Elan only received a copy of the further investigation report on 16 July, and new prosecution witnesses were presented in court on 17 July and 20 without providing enough time for the defense to prepare for cross-examination. These decisions have put in question the fairness of the trial as they have, among other things, particularly hindered the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense.

Ten years after Khan’s abduction, closing arguments will be heard in Khan and Elan’s case, and their sentencing of up to ten years in prison, if convicted, is imminent. This case has served to continuously criticise their human rights work, they have been denied their right to a fair trial and have been demonised by the government. We stand with both courageous human rights defenders and urge the Bangladeshi government to immediately and unconditionally drop all charges against them. We remind the government that those working to document and expose human rights violations should be able to conduct their important work without fear of harassment, intimidation, and reprisal.


  • Amnesty International

  • Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network

  • Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances

  • Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)

  • Asian Human Rights Commission

  • Banglar Manabadhikar Surakha Mancha (MASUM)

  • Capital Punishment Justice Project, Australia

  • CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation

  • CrimeInfo, Japan

  • Eleos Justice, Monash University, Australia

  • Front Line Defenders

  • Human Rights First

  • Human Rights Watch

  • International Coalition Against Enforced Disappearances (ICAED)

  • International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders

  • Japan Innocence and Death Penalty Information Center

  • Malaysians Against Death Penalty and Torture (MADPET)

  • Martin Ennals Foundation

  • Programme Against Custodial Torture and Impunity (PACTI)

  • Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights

  • World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders