A court in Bangladesh has sentenced two leading human rights activists to two years in jail in a trial that critics say is part of a government crackdown ahead of elections.
Both Adilur Rahman Khan and Nasiruddin Elan, leaders of the Odhikar human rights organisation, “were sentenced to two years in prison”, Judge Zulfiker Hayat said on Thursday.
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Khan, 63, and Elan, 57, have led Odhikar for decades, working to document thousands of alleged extrajudicial killings, disappearances of opposition activists and police brutality.
The criminal charges against Odhikar’s leaders related to a fact-finding report they compiled 10 years ago on extrajudicial killings.
“They were sentenced to two years in jail for publishing and circulating false information, hurting religious sentiments and undermining the image of the state,” prosecutor Nazrul Islam Shamim told the Agence France-Presse news agency.
Al Jazeera’s Tanvir Chowdhury, reporting from Dhaka, said the court verdict “sends out a chilling message”.
“It comes ahead of general elections and the international eye is on Bangladesh,” he said.
With a general election due before the end of January, several Western governments have expressed concern over the political climate in Bangladesh, where the ruling party dominates the legislature and runs it virtually as a rubber stamp.
“This verdict will send a chilling message to the human rights defenders in the country and make their work enormously difficult,” Nur Khan Liton, a former head of another of the country’s leading human rights organisations, told the AFP.
Khan and Elan were in the court in Dhaka for their sentencing, which several foreign diplomats attended.
Odhikar has been documenting human rights violations in Bangladesh since 1994. It has worked closely with United Nations bodies and global human rights groups.
This month, the UN voiced alarm at what it said was Bangladesh’s use of legal proceedings to intimidate and harass rights advocates and civil society leaders.
Both Khan and Elan “have faced harassment and intimidation”, UN rights office spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said last week.
Dhaka reacted angrily to the UN comments, calling them a “flagrant disrespect” of its justice system.
Last year, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina cancelled Odhikar’s operating licence after accusing it of tarnishing Bangladesh’s image, prompting a chorus of condemnation from rights advocates.