In the run-up to Human Rights Day on 10 December and the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders on 9 December, CSW has been speaking with HRDs across South Asia to find out what it means to be a FoRB defender in the region.
Julfikar is a human rights defender working in Bangladesh:
“When friends, well-wishers and colleagues frequently advise me to restrict my movement and leave my country for safety elsewhere, it becomes an indescribable mental pressure. I have been facing this reality for many years now, but it has intensified over the last one year as Bangladesh heads to the national election on December 30.
I have spent 28 years as a professional journalist. During this period, I have witnessed horrific political, religious violence, and brutal terror attacks in the name of Islam. I have investigated and covered many of those traumatic events and closely observed others. There are many more to investigate, but the situation is gradually becoming more difficult for people like me.
In my career, I have exposed violations of human rights, religious persecution, atrocities, intimidation, war crimes of 1971 and criminal activities, abuse of law, corruption, hate campaign, propaganda and fake news on the social media with ill motives.
Rosaline (Rosie) Costa, a Bangladeshi human rights activist, was forced to leave the country in July 2016. In 2017, CSW interviewed her in New York. During the interview, Rosie discussed the reasons she had to leave Bangladesh, and shed light on issues of religious freedom in the country.
Rosie’s involvement in human rights work began in 1986, after she left the community of nuns to which she belonged for 17 years to pursue human rights work. She spent time working with women and children in the garment industry, establishing a hostel for rescued children who had been forced into madrasas (colleges for Islamic instruction), and speaking around the world about issues faced by minorities and particularly Hindus.
Forced To Flee
While Rosie had been no stranger to risk in her work, her fears for her safety grew following a number of killings of Christians in Bangladesh, perpetrated by people claiming to belong to Daesh. “I realised that I was being followed by some people, that’s when I left the country … I saw how the people were killed, so if something was to happen to me nobody would be able to rescue me from these people.”
“The culture of impunity can’t go on or violence will increase.” – Ajoy Roy
The words of Ajoy Roy, the frail father of the late Avijit Roy hit us hard. We listened in silence as he shared his despair and disappointment at the lack of judicial process following the murder of his son in 2015. The murder of Avijit Roy, a blogger, made international news and became a case representative of the situation facing not just bloggers but journalists, lawyers, religious leaders and religious minorities in Bangladesh; these members of Bangladesh’s civil society are vulnerable to threats, harassment and attacks.
The voices of extremism and violence infiltrating Bangladesh’s society have delivered a clear and frightening message: independent expressions on religious issues will not be tolerated.
A pattern of appalling attacks that began in 2013 and took the lives of four secular bloggers in 2015 shocked the nation and caught the attention of international media. The stream of violence reflects a forceful assault on freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression, theoretically enshrined in Bangladesh’s secular constitution and ratified international conventions.
The need for a clear counter-narrative to fundamentalism
If the values of a secular democracy are to be protected, fundamentalism must be met with a positive counter narrative from governing authorities. Unfortunately, in Bangladesh, neither political leaders nor members of the police force have succeeded in articulating a message of tolerance safeguarding the human rights and freedoms of its citizens.
On 8 August 2015, Niloy Chatterjee was the fourth blogger to be brutally murdered that year following the killings of Avijit Roy on 27 February 2015, Washiqur Rahman Babu on 30 March 2015 and Ananta Bijoy Das on 12 May 2015.