DHAKA, Bangladesh - In a trial that critics say is part of a government crackdown ahead of elections, a court in Bangladesh sentenced two prominent human rights activists to two years in prison.
According to Judge Zulfikar Hayat, Adilur Rahman Khan and Nasiruddin Elan, leaders of the Odhikar, a human rights organization, were sentenced to two years in prison on Thursday.
For decades, Khan, 63, and Elan, 57, have led Odhikar, documenting thousands of alleged extrajudicial killings, disappearances of opposition activists, and police brutality.
The criminal charges leveled against Odhikar's leaders stemmed from a fact-finding report on extrajudicial killings that they compiled ten years ago.
"They were sentenced to two years in prison for spreading false information, hurting religious sentiments, and undermining the state's image," prosecutor Nazrul Islam Shamim told the press.
With a general election scheduled for the end of January, several Western governments have expressed concern about the political climate in Bangladesh, where the ruling party controls the legislature and effectively runs it as a rubber stamp.
"This verdict will send a chilling message to the country's human rights defenders and make their work enormously difficult," said Nur Khan Liton, a former leader of another country's leading human rights organization.
Khan and Elan were sentenced in Dhaka in front of a courtroom packed with foreign diplomats.
Since 1994, Odhikar has been documenting human rights violations in Bangladesh. It has collaborated closely with United Nations agencies and global human rights organizations.
This month, the UN expressed concern about Bangladesh's alleged use of legal proceedings to intimidate and harass rights advocates and civil society leaders.
Last week, UN rights office spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani stated that both Khan and Elan "have faced harassment and intimidation."
The UN comments enraged Dhaka, who called them a "flagrant disrespect" of its justice system.
Last year, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government canceled Odhikar's operating license, accusing it of tarnishing Bangladesh's image, prompting a chorus of condemnation from human rights advocates.