Who are you going to call when all the human rights defenders are gone?
It is important that all Bangladeshis in Bangladesh and globally, international human rights organisations and concerned citizens rally around Mr Khan and demand his immediate release. This is not about partisan politics, whether you agree with the work Odhikar is doing, this is about fundamental aspect of democracy, writes Chaumtoli Huq
ON THE evening of August 10, human rights defender Adilur Rahman Khan was arrested by the Dhaka police. We know from news reports that one of the charges is based on Section 57 of the Information Communication and Technology Act under which the government alleges that he through his organisation Odhikar fabricated information about human rights abuses during protests by Hefajat-e-Islam members on May 5 and 6.
As a law professor and long-time public interest litigator, primarily representing immigrants in the United States, in particular Bangladeshis, I am always ready for the call from the client who is in trouble. I don’t expect to be arrested for my advocacy on behalf of my client. In fact, I try hard not to be arrested because I am of no use to my clients in jail.
Over the years, I have had many, and some depending on your political beliefs may have been considered highly unpopular. Mr Khan’s case about defaming the image of Bangladesh reminds me of a Bangladeshi migrant domestic worker client. He was brought to New York by a Bangladeshi diplomat and was abused and not paid his wages. During a high-level meeting with the state department, and the diplomat, the Bangladeshi diplomat lamented that I was wasting my precious legal education on a poor, illiterate boy from Bangladesh. When, I said I was honoured to represent him, and I thought who would, as one of the few Bengali-speaking lawyers then in New York, the diplomat turned to anger — ‘You are a disgrace to Bangladesh and that bringing the case for wages brought shame on my country. I recall vividly my client’s look at that moment, waiting for my response, perhaps wondering whether I will cave and compromise to the pressure of this high-ranking diplomat that enjoyed diplomatic immunity. Would I align with the power elite to preserve my own identity and career? He must have seen this occur time and time again in his lifetime. All I could say to him was: ‘No, it is you who is bringing shame to Bangladesh by exploiting your own people.’ I sensed a sigh of relief from my client, and an infusion of hope in the air. There are many more stories to tell but this one seems appropriate here, as section 57 of the ICT Act is being used to harass Mr Khan for prejudicing the image of Bangladesh.
Abroad, Bangladesh is already reeling from a negative image from the Rana Plaza tragedy, reports on pollution, suspension of trade benefits, and to have this arrest reinforces an image of Bangladesh as a place hostile to democracy and public protest. Instead of letting the legal process take its course, and set up an independent commission to investigate the events of May 5 and 6, the government of Bangladesh has decided to arrest a human rights lawyer who has dedicated his work to finding the truth about human rights abuses. Odhikar is a fact-finding and human rights monitoring group. Arresting a human rights lawyer is not an action that enhances the image of Bangladesh as a democracy. It is the current government of Bangladesh that is prejudicing the image of the country by refusing to investigate what has been reported to be about 61 deaths during the May 5 and 6 protests [see Human Rights Watch report, ‘Blood on the Streets: Use of Excessive Force During Bangladesh Protests’, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2013/08/01/blood-streets-0].
In my fifteen years as a public interest lawyer in New York, I have come to understand the important and difficult role that human rights lawyers play in our society to look out for the interests of those who are least fortunate, and least popular. For some lawyers, this may involve threats to their safety. The public often assumes that the lawyer represents the view of his client. It is possible that it is because we don’t do a good job in messaging our role. But, this is exactly why under the professional codes in New York there is this disclaimer: ‘A lawyer’s representation of a client, including representation by appointment does not constitute an endorsement of the client’s political, economic, social or moral views or activities.’ This professional code was affirmatively stated for a reason so that lawyers are not fearful to represent those whose views may be considered unpopular, and fear that their client’s views may be attributed to them. Democracy rests on ensuring that all members of society have right to access to courts, and justice.
In Bangladesh, advocates like Mr Khan are silenced for advocating for those most unpopular. Leaving aside the debate on your views on Hefajat-e-Islam or Islamic parties generally, if there are serious concerns of human rights abuses, then, do they not deserve the protection of the law? If Odhikar and Mr Khan seek to uncover the truth about the allegations that protestors were killed during May 5 and 6, then does that make Odhikar a ‘right wing’ organisation or Mr Khan a Jamaat supporter? It doesn’t just as it does not make me a terrorist for advocating for and representing Muslim immigrants here in the US who have been accused of being terrorists. It makes us human rights lawyers.
Given the critical role that human rights defenders play in our civil society, the United Nations passed the declaration to protect their rights. If you arrest human right defenders, or lawyers who defend the marginalised, vulnerable to abuse, who will protect them now? Maybe, that is precisely the idea.
It is important that all Bangladeshis in Bangladesh and globally, international human rights organisations and concerned citizens rally around Mr Khan and demand his immediate release. This is not about partisan politics, whether you agree with the work Odhikar is doing, this is about fundamental aspect of democracy. Do you think the government should arrest a human rights lawyer for protecting human rights? I hope the answer is no, because the next time you need a human rights defender, they all may be in prison.
Chaumtoli Huq is a US-based law professor and public interest lawyer. Follow her @lawatmargins. email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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