The ICJ is calling on the Bangladesh authorities to immediately withdraw contempt of court charges against Human Rights Watch.
“Bangladesh must not impose contempt of court charges to restrict the important work carried out by human rights defenders, including international human rights groups,” said Alex Conte, Director of the ICJ’s International Law and Protection Programmes. “The contempt charges are inconsistent with Bangladesh’s obligations as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to respect freedom of expression.”
On 20 August 2013, prosecutors for the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) in Bangladesh charged Human Rights Watch with contempt of court for allegedly “scandalizing the judiciary” after the group had expressed concern that the trial of Ghulam Azam, former head of the Islamist group Jamaat-e-Islami Azam’s trial was “deeply flawed” and did not meet international fair trial standards.
The group stated, based on credible media reports, that “judges improperly conducted an investigation on behalf of the prosecution” and that there was “collusion and bias among prosecutors and judges”.
“It is paramount that those responsible for committing atrocities – notably unlawful killings and the widespread and systematic use of rape as a form of torture – during Bangladesh’s war of liberation in 1971, should be prosecuted before competent, independent and impartial courts in proceedings that meet international fair trial standards,” Conte added. “Muzzling voices that highlight the deficiencies of the ICT and prosecutions before it distract from that enormously important task.”
The ICJ, as well as several Bangladeshi and international observers, have expressed similar concerns that the International Crimes Tribunal does not adhere to international standards of a fair trial.
“The charges against Human Rights Watch are an abuse of prosecutorial discretion to attack a highly respected human rights group for pointing out serious and well-documented problems with the Bangladeshi International Crimes Tribunal. Attacking the messenger does not address nor resolve the very real concerns about the operations of the ICT,” said Conte.
Under international norms, judges and the judicial process are not immune from public criticism. The Bangalore Principles on Judicial Conduct clarify that “since judicial independence does not render a judge free from public accountability, and legitimate public criticism of judicial performance is a means of ensuring accountability subject to law, a judge should generally avoid the use of the criminal law and contempt proceedings to restrict such criticism of the courts”.
Similarly, the Commonwealth (Latimer House) Principles on the Accountability of and the Relationship Between the Three Branches of Government also stress that “criminal law and contempt proceedings should not be used to restrict legitimate criticism of the performance of judicial functions”.
The charges against Human Rights Watch were preceded by the arrest on 10 August 2013, of Adilur Rahman, Secretary of the human rights group Odhikar for allegedly “distorting information” on a police operation on a Hefazat-e Islam rally in May this year. Odhikar reported that 61 people had been killed in the police crackdown on the rally. The Government disputed the number of casualties.
“We are deeply concerned that the contempt of court charges against Human Rights Watch and the charges against Adilur Rahman, are expressly intended to silence dissent and discourage individuals and organizations from raising legitimate concerns about human rights violations and the rapid deterioration of the rule of law in Bangladesh,” Conte further said. “Rather than charging them with contempt, the authorities should investigate the allegations of rights violations made by Human Rights Watch and Adilur Rahman”.
The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders underscores that “everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels”.
The Declaration also highlights that human rights defenders have the right to “freely to publish, impart or disseminate to others views, information and knowledge on all human rights and fundamental freedoms” and to hold opinions and draw public attention to the observance of human rights.
“We urge the Bangladesh authorities to immediately drop the charges against Human Rights Watch and Adilur Rahman, which are being used to restrict the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression, and allow human rights defenders to freely carry out their work,” said Conte.
Alex Conte, Director, International Law & Protection Programmes (Geneva), t: +41 79 957 2733; email: alex.conte(a)icj.org