A Bangladeshi lawyer specializing in the rights of minorities and LGBTQI+ people, Shahanur Islam is one of the 2023 winners of the Marianne Initiative. Dedicated for many years to the queer community through his actions and criminal cases, the lawyer has been rewarded by the Initiative for his unwavering commitment. The Eye of the House of journalists had the opportunity to interview him about his commitment and his NGO.
Married with a young son, Shahanur has often feared for his family. His wife has herself specialized in defending the rights of women and children, who are also oppressed in Bangladesh. Yet Shahanur Islam has never given in to the threats, intimidation and aggression he suffers at the hands of his detractors. A lawyer by passion and deeply motivated by respect for human rights, nothing seems able to stop him.
And with good reason: Bangladesh is a South Asian country dominated by the Islamic religion. There, the LGBTQI+ community faces many and varied forms of violence, discrimination and marginalization within its family, society and state due to segregative laws, religious sentiments and social norms. Having had a transgender cousin assaulted, Shahanur knows what he’s talking about.
Bangladesh has also experienced periods of political instability, with frequent changes of government and cases of political violence. A toxic, even deadly environment for rights defenders, where their work is seen as a challenge to the government or to powerful actors.
“Weak democratic institutions and a lack of respect for the rule of law prevent the implementation and enforcement of human rights protections,” explains the 2023 Marianne Initiative winner. “There is a culture of impunity for human rights violations. This discourages people from seeking and obtaining justice, which makes our struggle difficult,” he laments.
“Journalists, activists and human rights defenders are the constant victims of harassment, threats and even violence for denouncing violations or criticizing the government. Extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances are widespread in Bangladesh. This contributes to a climate of fear and mistrust of law enforcement agencies, and hampers efforts to protect human rights.”
But other parameters must also be taken into account: poverty and illiteracy (literacy rate 75%), “which exacerbate human rights problems in Bangladesh, as marginalized people lack access to basic rights and services. In addition, human rights organizations and institutions have limited resources, preventing them from effectively investigating and documenting violations and providing support to victims.”
A lawyer dedicated to the LGBTQI+ community
“This situation has deeply shocked and moved me, especially as I have witnessed similar persecution and discrimination in my neighborhood and within my extended family.” Feeling a strong sense of empathy and concern for their well-being, “I knew I had to act to change things.”
A few years ago, he began to learn about LGBTQI+ issues around the world and to make contact with committed activists and institutions. “These experiences have strengthened my determination to defend LGBTQI+ rights in my own country,” in both his personal and professional life.
He firmly believes in the fundamental principles of human rights, equality and dignity for all individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation, age, gender identity or expression.
His work aims to empower LGBTQI+ people, helping them to assert their rights and claim their rightful place in society. He knows his role as an advocate is “essential” to “promoting positive change, raising awareness and lobbying for better legal protection for the community. “As a human rights defender, lawyer and citizen journalist in Bangladesh, I have for some years been defending the rights of minorities, as well as victims of torture, extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances and organized violence.” An “unwavering commitment” for the queer community, and will never stop contributing to a future “where all individuals can live in dignity and freedom.”
Multiple violent assaults in Bangladesh
A fight that seems never-ending. “Last year, I received threats from Islamic extremists, which also targeted my wife and child. That’s why we have taken various security measures to protect them while they live in Bangladesh.” Threats he still receives today.
On the ground, his family avoids crowded places, only goes out in groups and not after dark; they frequently change their itinerary when traveling, as well as their place of residence. Precautions that have a heavy impact on their daily lives. “The safety of my family is an absolute priority, and I would be grateful for any help we could receive to overcome these difficult circumstances,” says the lawyer.
“I have faced terrifying experiences, including repeated threats, death threats, intimidation, physical assaults, and unlawful prosecution,” he confides without lowering his head. Shahanur lodged a complaint with each assault, to no avail.
First on January 9, 2011, in the Thakurgaon district in the north of the country. At the time, he was in the presence of two other rights defenders, on a fact-finding mission to investigate a human rights violation. “During our visit, we were attacked by a group of around ten people. One of the assailants introduced himself as a member of the local Parishad Union (editor’s note: rural council), while another claimed to be its president.”
“They aggressively questioned us about the purpose of our presence in the area, then one of them physically assaulted me as I tried to call the local police. They then began robbing us at gunpoint, taking video cameras, a laptop, important documents and cash among other things. I sustained further injuries during this assault when I desperately tried to call for help.”
The drama didn’t stop there: the men forced the group “to pose for photos while holding sums of money in US dollars.” Threatened with death and with the compromising photos being published in newspapers, the rights defenders failed to report the assault to the police.
On August 26, 2020, while working at the Naogaon District Court in the north of the country, Shahanur was attacked “by a group of Islamic terrorists. As soon as I left the courtroom and reached the veranda, I was suddenly attacked with the clear intention of abducting and killing me.”
Lawyers and law clerks save him in extremis from the terrorists. He emerged traumatized, with serious wounds under his left eye, on his forehead and the rest of his body, requiring hospitalization. A situation that reinforces Shahanur’s commitment to human rights. “I will continue to defend justice, equality and the protection of human rights for all, regardless of the risks we face“, he says repeatedly.
When he reports incidents to the police, they refuse to act or investigate. “For the assault that occurred in 2020, I was able to file a complaint and two of the assailants were apprehended. They were subsequently released on bail, and the investigation failed to arrest the other criminals involved. The police even submitted an erroneous investigation report against three of the perpetrators, wrongly discharging them.”
“In October 2022, my transgender cousin and I were forcibly detained by a group of individuals in Kolabazar, Naogaon district. They threatened me with death if I didn’t withdraw the complaint filed against Jahurul Islam and my attackers in 2020. Despite these challenges and threats, I did not get justice and I continue to fight for accountability and for the protection of myself and others.”
Continued threats and harassment, even though he’s no longer in the country. “On July 11, 2023, a sub-inspector from the Special Branch of Police (SB) in Badalgachhi, Naogaon, visited my home in Bangladesh. He sought detailed information about me and my family, and asked me for personal information.” He also questioned his cousin about his work, “related to the establishment of LGBTQI+ rights and my advocacy for the decriminalization of homosexuality in Bangladesh.”
Furthermore, on June 21, 2023, “a user named ‘Mon Day’ on Facebook launched a vicious campaign against me, on an Islamic extremist Facebook group called ‘Caravan’. This campaign was aimed at deporting me from Bangladesh. They called me an enemy of Islam and falsely accused me of implementing a Western agenda to legitimize homosexuality. They also called for a ban on JusticeMakers Bangladesh, an organization I founded.”
JusticeMakers, the voice of forgotten Bangladeshis
Together with a group of young lawyers and social workers, Shahanur Islam founded JusticeMakers Bangladesh in 2010, after receiving a grant from International Bridges to Justice (IBJ) in Switzerland. Their NGO is dedicated to justice, rehabilitation and community development, with a focus on “the protection and promotion of human rights”, explains the award winner. They go so far as to represent victims in court and accompany them in their complaints.
“We are committed to respecting the principles set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the fundamental provisions of the Constitution of Bangladesh. We also provide humanitarian assistance to Bangladeshi victims of violations and discrimination.”
JusticeMakers defends “victims of extrajudicial killings, torture, organized violence and disappearances, as well as people facing violence and discrimination, including women and children.”
“Despite the challenges and dangers I face, the moments of success and knowing I’m making a difference in someone’s life make it all worthwhile. Seeing the smiles on the faces of those whose rights have been defended, and knowing that they can now live in dignity and freedom, is truly rewarding.”
The organization, now based in France, also aims to “contribute to the defense, promotion, education, protection and realization of human rights, guaranteeing equality for all individuals, regardless of race, gender, sexual or religious orientation, caste or social class. We also provide access to existing support services for asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants of Bangladeshi origin living in France,” explains Shahanur.
“Our legal experts will provide them with knowledge of existing legislation, constitutional rights and international human rights instruments.” At the same time, they communicate Bangladeshi criminal cases internationally, in order to “raise public awareness and lobby for the resolution of cases.”
They even mobilize the highest international institutions and jurisdictions, not hesitating to organize meetings, seminars and training courses. Shahanur and JusticeMakers don’t intend to stop there: they plan to “soon publish a monthly newsletter on the state of violations in Bangladesh”, as well as “research papers and books.”
“We will maintain close relations and cooperation with other human rights organizations, embassies, local associations of lawyers, doctors, journalists’ associations and other professionals.” Finally, “a hotline” will be set up in Bangladesh for anyone concerned.
Marianne Initiative, an “invaluable opportunity” for JusticeMakers
These milestones would not have been possible without his participation in the Marianne Initiative, a veritable incubator for rights defenders. Shahanur feels “extremely lucky and honored” to be a laureate of the promotion of 2023. “This recognition has had a significant impact on my work as a rights defender,” he proclaims. His NGO has gained greater visibility and reached “a wider audience.” He speaks of an “invaluable opportunity” within the program, which has enabled him to have a “greater positive impact.”
“Being recognized as a laureate validates my dedication and impact in promoting human rights,” the lawyer tells us. “It has strengthened my credibility, attracting support, partnership and collaboration from individuals and organizations who share this common commitment.”
At the same time, he was able to develop his advocacy skills and deepen his knowledge of international law. In short, “the international attention and support generated by the Marianne Initiative has contributed to my security and well-being in carrying out my work.”
Courageous, Shahanur is undeterred by the violence or the dizzying mass of work: he knows just how marginalized the LGBTQI+ community is in his country, and that all too often it’s a matter of life and death.
Credits photo : Jon Southcoasting
Maud Baheng Daizey