UN experts urge Bangladesh to seize Human Rights Council review as opportunity to address deteriorating human rights situation

GENEVA (14 November 2023) – The severe crackdown against workers demanding fair wages and political activists calling for free and fair elections, judicial harassment of journalists, human rights defenders and civil society leaders, and failure to reform laws suppressing freedom of expression in Bangladesh are grave concerns, UN experts* said today, as the Human Rights Council completed its periodic review of the human rights situation in the country.

“As Bangladesh heads towards national elections in early 2024, we are deeply disturbed by the sharp rise in political violence, arrests of senior opposition leaders, mass arbitrary detention of thousands of political activists, use of excessive force by the authorities and internet shutdowns to disrupt protests, and allegations of harassment, intimidation and unlawful detention of family members as a retaliatory measure,” the experts said.

They expressed alarm at the threats to media freedom, noting that attacks, surveillance, intimidation and judicial harassment of the press over the past several years have led to widespread self-censorship in the media.

The weaponisation of the judicial system to attack journalists, human rights defenders and civil society leaders diminishes the independence of the judiciary and erodes fundamental human rights,” the experts said.

As an example of judicial harassment, the experts highlighted the case of investigative journalist, Rozina Islam, in which the prosecution has failed to produce material evidence after two years of investigation, repeated hearings and a travel ban that is affecting her work.

In September the secretary and director of the leading the human rights organisation, Odhikar, were convicted and imprisoned on charges of publishing “fake information” when in fact they had documented extrajudicial killings and excessive use of force by security forces in 2013 which the Bangladeshi government has never investigated. Odhikar was denied renewal of its registration last year. 

“When prominent civil society leaders like Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus or human rights defenders like Adilur Rahman Khan or Nasiruddin Elan are charged or convicted in retaliation for human rights work, it sends a chilling message to all journalists and human rights defenders that any dissent or critical opinion may lead to the most severe sanctions, no matter how outrageous the accusations or how prominent the person,” the experts said.    

“According to the authorities over 5,600 cases related to freedom of expression, including those of prominent journalists and editors, are still pending under the much-criticised draconian Digital Services Act,” noted the experts.

“Despite promises from the government of significant legal change, which we warmly welcomed, the new Cyber Security Act has made only few improvements and continues to retain many of the flaws of the legislation, threatening the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression,” they said.

“The universal periodic review of the Human Rights Council is an opportunity for Bangladesh not only to reiterate its commitment to human rights in words but to take urgent, concrete action to end attacks on human rights defenders and journalists” the experts said. “We urge the Human Rights Council and the international community to press upon Bangladesh the urgency and importance of ensuring a safe, open and conducive environment for free and fair elections,” they said.

The Special Rapporteurs are in contact with the Government of Bangladesh on these issues.