On September 14, 2023, a Dhaka Court convicted two Bangladeshi human rights activists, Adilur Rahman Khan and Nasiruddin Elan, and sentenced them to two years imprisonment each for publishing a report with false information in 2013. While dozens of human rights and other organisations have criticised the Bangladesh Government for the outcome of the case, it appears that they have not bothered to delve deeper into the facts of the allegations, the evidence produced against the accused, and the defences raised (if at all). If they had, they would’ve realised that their criticisms come from a place of solidarity with fellow human rights activists, as opposed to one from justice and fairness
How It Started
It has been more than 10 years since activists of Hefazat-E-Islam, a radical Islamist organisation drawing their strength from Madrassas (like the Taliban), were driven out from Shapla Chattar, Dhaka in the middle of the night by law enforcers in the early hours of May 6, 2013. They had gathered there the day before under their “Shapla Chattar Protest” programme, where they gave an ultimatum to the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to implement their 13-point demands, failing which they threatened to take over the country, and implement Sharia (Islamic religious laws).
Among others, the extremist group’s demands included, a new Islamic blasphemy law with death penalty, cancellation of a progressive women’s policy, declaring Ahmadiyyas as non-Muslims, and an anti-conversion law (against Christian missionaries in particular). Their rally turned violent and kept the busy business district Motijheel occupied for nearly 12 hours after their rally ended there on the late hours of May 5, 2013. Thus, the law enforcers swung into action after midnight and drove them away. Throughout the day, Dhaka’s Paltan and Motijheel areas transformed into a scene of mayhem as unruly Hefazat men burned down and vandalised properties and clashed with law enforcers, not even sparing to burn hundreds of copies of the Holy Quran.
The raid on that night became the topic of much discussion and intrigue as immediately following the incident, social media and other online platforms became inundated with claims of a state sponsored “massacre”, whereby it was suggested that law enforcers killed at least 2500 people! They have stuck to their claim till date, despite never being able to produce any list of victims. This absurd claim however, received support from Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) too, with their leaders claiming that “hundreds” were killed, and comparing the events to the infamous Operation Searchlight of the Pakistani Army of March 25, 1971. In fact, it subsequently transpired that BNP, and its fundamentalist ally, Jamaat-E-Islami, provided material support for the protests, with human resources and funding.
However, it did not take much time to know that the images being disseminated were fake, borrowed from elsewhere or doctored (including use of images from the 2010 Haiti Earthquake). Basically, the claim of a massacre that night was pure disinformation. A large number of journalists from the print and electronic media, along with a large number of people with cameras were present during the drive, and they monitored and broadcast the event, minute by minute. None of them witnessed any such massacre. The law enforcers stuck to their number of 11 casualties. However, they added that, not even all of the casulaties were from the protests, but from throughout the day in various places of Dhaka and Narayanganj, as Hefazat activists clashed with law enforcers and carried out widespread vandalism and carnage in partnership with Jamaat.
A Controversial Report
The only other source which even remotely corroborated the story of Hefazate Islam was a controversial report by the right-wing human rights organisation Odhikar. On 10 June 2013, the rights body published the report after purportedly conducting a fact-finding drive in which they concluded that 61 Hefazate Islam activists were killed by law enforcers during the late night drive at Shapla Chattar. This directly contradicted the official figure, and naturally the government sought a list of the victims to assess whether there had been any shortcomings on their part. However, Odhikar refused to give the list to the Information Ministry voluntarily, nor did they release this “list” to the media. Thus, the police, with proper authorisation, raided the offices of Odhikar on August 11, 2013 and recovered a list. On August 10, Adilur Rahman Khan and Nasiruddin Elan were arrested under the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Act for spreading false information which led to breakdown of peace and public order, and tarnished the image of the country abroad. The two men were formally charged on January 8, 2014.
The death-toll figure of 61 by Odhikar became the subsequent basis for radicals Hefazat and Jamaat to go on an all-out campaign against the incumbent Awami League Government as an anti-Islamic force hell-bent on destroying Islam and killing their scholars. It is widely believed that the disinformation was a key factor in Awami League’s losses in the subsequent local government mayoral elections.
It was not only that the Odhikar death-toll was rebuffed by the government. The findings of the mainstream electronic media and newspapers also disagreed with Odhikar’s findings. According to an investigation by The Daily Star, 18 men died in the unrest centering on Shapla Chattar. This was supported by an independent investigation by a Peoples’ Commission led by a civil society organisation, which concluded that the Odhikar list was ‘exaggerated’. One of the sources claimed by Odhikar for their report was a list of 16 deceased people collected from the morgue of Dhaka Medical College Hospital. However, investigation by the Daily Star found that at least three of those corpses in the morgue were sent from another district, Narayanganj.
This is what an eye witness BBC journalist Kallol Kadir had to say about the law enforcement drive:
“The law enforcers started the raid to clear away Hefazat activists at the first hour of Monday (6 May 2013). Members of three forces: RAB, police and BGB started towards Shapla Chattar at 1:00 am. I joined them within 15 minutes. I saw that the entire area was cordoned off and everyone was asked to leave. But nobody left at first. The cops started firing hundreds of blank rounds and tear shells. Sound grenades were used too. It is at this point that Hefazat activists started to disperse. Many of them took refuge in the buildings of Motijheel. At dawn, the law enforcers brought them down and assisted them to leave the area. I myself saw many Hefazat activists lining up and leaving with their hands over their heads. Some of them were injured and were requiring assistance to leave.
The makeshift stage of Hefazat was at that point under police’s control. Besides the stage on a van were the polythene clad corpses of 4 people. Other journalists saw those corpses along with me. But police and Hefazat activists leaving the area could not confirm who they belonged to. A few thousand law enforcers were at Shapla Chattar till morning and were occasionally firing blank shots. The entire Motijheel area had a war torn look, bearing the brunt of yesterday’s daylong violent agitation by Hefazat. Only cops and journalists could be seen plying the streets at that time. Nobody was arrested at the time of clearing Shapla Chattar. When asked by BBC, Lt. Colonel Ziaul Hasan explained that they could have arrested them but they only wanted them to leave, and hence did not take a hardline approach”.
List Riddled with Holes
In August 2013, Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) organised a press conference and made their findings on the Odhikar Report public after the list was recovered from searching the organisation’s offices. They found that the list had 60 names. The 10th entry in the list was empty. Here are the inconsistencies the police raised:
There were names of three people who Odhikar claimed had been killed but were actually alive. It contained the names of five other people who were killed in Narayanganj and Chittagong. Five other names were mentioned twice. The first name on the list was that of Siddiqur Rahman, the driver of a bus requisitioned by police, who was actually killed by Hefazate Islam activists. The 57th name was Kamal Uddin Khan, manager of General Insurance Company, who actually died of cardiac arrest on that night. 19 people on that list never existed. They are:
Masum Billah of Narayanganj, serial 12; Lutfor Rahman of Mymensingh, serial 13; Moulana Md Hasan of Narayanganj; Hafej Lokman Hossain of Narayanganj, serial 29; Al Amin of Narayanganj, serial 30; Moulana Jubair of Munsiganj, serial 31; Shafiullah Badal of Gazipur, serial 32; Sirajul Islam of Mymensingh, serial 34; Babu Gazi of Shariyatpur, serial 35; Md Sohel of Comilla, serial 39; Sekandar Ali Fakir alias Ebne Ali Maijuddin Fakir of Bogra, serial 40; Md Sultan of Jatrabari, serial 45; Rajeeb of Demra, serial 46; Moulana Mutiar Rahman of Comila, serial 49; Sbbir of Demra, serial 53; Taher of Demra, serial 54; Abu Sayeed of Demra, serial 55; Jalal Ahmed of Shariyatpur, serial 60; and Sirajul Islam of Comilla, serial 61.
After the list was trashed by the police, Odhikar disowned the list and claimed that it was an earlier draft. But this was never a credible stance as they maintained secrecy of the ‘final list’ (if there was any) even from other reputed human rights organisations like the Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK). Even the rationale for the secrecy is dubious. They cited security concerns of the victims’ families for never making the list public. A couple of factors raise serious doubts, including, first, Odhikar gave the identities of two such persons along with the interviews of their relatives. Was this not a compromise of their security? And second, Odhikar did release the identities of 69 injured people but never mentioned that any of them were attacked or received threats after the disclosure of their identities. The credibility of the sources cited for their so-called fact-finding mission also make their findings hard to believe from a legal and evidentiary point of view, especially when considered in light of the fact that none of the electronic and/or print media outlets in Bangladesh, present during the entire episode, agreed with the controversial findings.
A news analysis M Abul Kalam Azad in the Daily Star titled, ‘Questions Aplenty’, listed some points, among others, which made the Odhikar report not only controversial but clearly one-sided and politically motivated, including the facts:
- The report said nothing about the destructive activities by Hefazat, the involvement of Jamaat-Shibir activists and their instigation of acts of violence, although it went into details to describe the role of law enforcers and pro-ruling party activists;
- The report termed Hefazat ‘a people’s platform, a non-political and socio-cultural organisation’, and mentioned its objectives were to promote “social dialogue to dispel prejudices that affect community harmony and relations”, all of which are factually inaccurate (clear from a cursory glance of their extremist 13 point-demands);
- The report said nothing about Hefazat’s killing of a cop while being flushed out of Shapla Chattar near the Alico Building in Motijheel (witnessed and reported by a Daily Star reporter);
- The report said Hefazat was “instigated by some bloggers and activists that mobilised at the Shahbagh movement”, and who were making “vulgar, humiliating, insulting and provocative remarks in the social media sites and blogs against Islam, Allah and Prophet Hazrat Mohammad (pbuh) (these are of course not true, and constitute victim blaming as multiple bloggers got killed as a result of such hate speech, pushed even by a so-called human rights organisation);
- The report justified the use of Madrassa children in such dangerous rallies by Hefazat (despite the fact that most of these children do not have the age to decide for themselves, had no agency to refuse their Madrassa teachers, and were forced or lured to attend the event).
The Judicial Verdict
The verdict against the Odhikar officials was ten years in the making. In the meantime, the proceedings of the case were suspended for more than three years upon challenge by the convicts (then the accused) in the High Court Division of the Supreme Court. After the suspension was lifted, the hearing was held for more than two years in the Cyber Tribunal. Following arguments and debates, presentation and testing of evidence, the following deviations were established beyond a reasonable doubt:
- Persons named in five serial nos. were named twice (thus five became ten);
- Four people, who were/are alive, were listed as dead;
- Seven people who died elsewhere, under different circumstances, were listed;
- Erroneous information provided for seven other persons;
- Eleven fictitious persons were included in the list.
These are issues which are not dependent on interpretation. Each of them could easily have been rebutted by both convicts had they actually had any shred of evidence. Thus, concrete misinformation was detected and subsequently became the basis of the convictions of Adilur Rahman and his colleague.
There is no doubt that Bangladesh has a lot to do in terms of its human rights record. It is also not controversial to say that human rights defenders here have to work under difficult circumstances. But the case against Adilur Rahman Khan and Nasiruddin Elan and their recent convictions for the controversial findings of their 2013 report are being unnecessarily muddled with the above-ground realities. Hence, to the government of Bangladesh, all the international statements condemning the verdict and sentences must seem like a request and/or instruction for immunity. It is therefore essential to ask, should human rights defenders enjoy immunity from prosecution for misinformation (including borderline disinformation) on highly sensitive issues with significant ramifications on peace and public order? If so, they should be honest and come out clean as to what exactly they are seeking to influence.
This article was originally published on BDanalytica