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Bangladesh defends arrest of prominent activist

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WASHINGTON (AP) — A prominent Bangladeshi human rights activist whose arrest last month drew U.S. criticism must be held accountable for circulating "false information" about fatalities during recent unrest, the top Bangladeshi diplomat said Thursday.

But in defending the government's handling of a case that has garnered international attention, Foreign Minister Dipu Moni appeared to misrepresent the reporting that got activist Adilur Rahman Khan into trouble.

Speaking at a Washington think tank, Moni alleged that Khan's human rights group Odhikar "propagated false information that thousands were killed" during a police crackdown on a rally by Islamic hardliners in the capital Dhaka on the night of May 5. She said the group had also posted manipulated images that could have sparked more violence.

She contended no one died in the police action as no lethal weapon was used.

Media reports at the time cited police confirming about a dozen deaths.

Odhikar reported 61 people died. It declined a subsequent Bangladeshi government request to forward the names and addresses of the dead, citing concern for the security of the victims' families. Odhikar requested the formation of an independent commission before submitting the names.

Human Rights Watch described Khan's Aug. 10 arrest as an attempt to silence one of the Bangladeshi government's most vocal critics ahead of upcoming elections. It said more than 50 people died in the unrest, and cited witnesses as saying that police beat detained protesters and shot others at close range with buckshot and tear gas canisters.

After Khan's arrest, the State Department called for his immediate release and for any legal proceedings to be transparent. It said his detention "has a chilling effect on Bangladeshi civil society and is reverberating negatively around the world."

Khan has been charged with "enraging public sentiment."

Moni said investigations are still underway, and if Khan is proved innocent he will be freed.

In her remarks at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Moni trumpeted Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina achievements in promoting democracy, rule of law and brisk economic growth in the South Asian nation of more than 160 million people. She said the government welcomed criticism, but "there should not be undue criticism."

Bangladesh has been roiled by unrest in recent months, as the opposition party of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and its allies have protested for a caretaker government to be installed before the elections that are due within months. The government says that would be unconstitutional.

The main Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, has also rallied against ongoing war crimes trial against its leaders accused of collaborating with the Pakistan army in atrocities during Bangladesh's bloody 1971 independence war in which Bangladesh says 3 million people died.

Human Rights Watch itself faces possible charges of contempt of court in Bangladesh for criticizing as "deeply flawed" the trial of one elderly former Jamaat chief, Ghulam Azam, who was sentenced to 90 years in jail for war crimes. This week, the war crimes tribunal gave the New York-based three weeks to explain its comments or face possible charges.

A person found responsible for contempt could face one year in jail and be ordered to pay 5,000 takas, or about $63.

Moni said the tribunal is independent and its petition has nothing to do with the government.

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