Dr Zafrullah’s contempt case taken up at UNHRC

The restrictions against freedom of speech in Bangladesh, particularly in relation to the contempt conviction of Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury, have captured the attention of international authorities during the ongoing 29th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, says a press release press release from the Right Livelihood Award Foundation.

On 10 June 2015, Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury, a Bangladeshi Freedom Fighter, renowned activist, and recipient of the 1992 Right Livelihood Award, was convicted of contempt by the dr zafrullahBangladesh International Crimes Tribunal-2, for being one of the signatories to a statement in support of Dhaka-based British journalist David Bergman.

On June 18, yesterday, the Asian Legal Resource Centre, sister organisation to the Asian Human Rights Commission (RLA 2014), submitted an Oral Statement to the UNHRC about how certain “repressive legislations and ‘contempt of court’ charges are being used as tools to suppress independent voices”. The Statement (accessible here) has referred to both Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury’s conviction for contempt by the International Crimes Tribunal-2 and that of Dhaka-based British journalist David Bergman, as “significant blows to freedom of speech in Bangladesh.”

On June 17, and after the submission of an Urgent Appeal (accessible here), representatives of the Asian Legal Resource Centre and the Right Livelihood Award Foundation met with Mr. David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, to apprise him about the alarming restrictions on freedoms of expression in Bangladesh, and to urge him to “issue a public statement on the case of Dr. Chowdhury’s conviction” in exercise of his mandate.

The Urgent Appeal argues that Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury’s conviction by the Internatonal Crimes Tribunal-2 violates his fundamental rights as per the Bangladesh Constitution and international law and requests the Special Rapporteur to urgently communicate with the Government of Bangladesh expressing his position and “take any and all further measures to defend the right of Dr. Chowdhury”.


Dr. Zafrullah’s conviction for signing a joint statement in support of Dhaka based British journalist David Bergman, who was himself convicted for contempt, is the latest in a series of contempt proceedings by the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal against members of civil society, journalists, and organisations, including The Economist, Human Rights Watch, and The New York Times. In an editorial published on 23 December 2014 (accessible here), for which the paper was charged with contempt, The New York Times stated that “the tribunal had set the bar for journalistic inquiry so low, and defined its terms so vaguely, that anyone who says or writes anything deemed to be offensive by the court’s arcane and arbitrary criteria is at risk of criminal charges. The result is a deep chill on freedom of expression and inquiry.” In a recent report, commissioned and published by the International Forum for Democracy and Human Rights (accessible here), Geoffrey Robertson Q.C. has noted that “by 2014 the judges have become even more thin-skinned and protective of nationalist assumptions.” In light of the Tribunal’s actions with regard to contempt proceedings, and against the backdrop of growing violence and intolerance in Bangladesh, Dr. Chowdhury’s courage of conviction to refuse to pay the fine and stand up for free speech in Bangladesh has significance far beyond the individual case itself.

Latest legal development:

On June 16, a Chamber Judge of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh accepted Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury’s petition to stay the realisation of the Taka 5,000 fine, a part of the punishment for contempt imposed by the International Crimes Tribunal-2. The stay extends to 5 July 2015, when the next hearing is scheduled before a full bench of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court. However, despite the stay having been granted by the Supreme Court on June 16, the proceedings related to which were attended by the Attorney General, the International Crimes Tribunal-2 has issued an arrest warrant for Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury for not having paid the Taka 5,000 fine within seven days of the contempt conviction. Until the official copy of the Stay Order reaches the Tribunal, there exists a possibility that Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury will be arrested.