"People have many reasons to come after me - because I talk about land grabbing, because I talk about the rights of indigenous people, of crimes against minorities"

MUMBAI, June 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In her long career defending the rights of women, indigenous people and ethnic minorities, Sultana Kamal has faced numerous threats and intimidation. But none over a statue.

Then on a TV show last month, she criticised the removal of a Lady Justice statue, wrapped in a traditional sari, from the Supreme Court premises - a move prompted by Islamist groups protesting it was a religious object.

Kamal lashed back that mosques must also not be permitted then, sparking threats from a radical Islamist group.

"I have made enemies in many places," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from Bangladesh.

"People have many reasons to come after me - because I talk about land grabbing, because I talk about the rights of indigenous people, of crimes against minorities. The majority groups, the fundamentalists don't like it."

Kamal, who until recently ran Dhaka-based human rights organisation Ain o Salish Kendra, has been a vocal critic of the government's failure to protect the rights of minority groups and, increasingly, activists like herself.

Rights activists in the South Asian country face judicial harassment, arbitrary arrest, fabricated charges, abduction, attacks, torture and extrajudicial killings, according to Front Line Defenders, an advocacy group headquartered in Dublin.

Violations against activists are committed by state and non-state actors, and in most cases go unpunished, it said.

"The government does not put the rights of people first," said Kamal, who campaigned for the country's liberation in the 1960s and 1970s, and now advocates for the protection of the fragile Sundarbans coastal mangrove forests.

Activists warn the proposed construction of power plants near the Sundarbans would damage the environment and affect the livelihoods of millions.

Some protests against the projects have turned violent.

Kamal is also fighting for the rights of tens of thousands of indigenous people displaced from their traditional lands in the Chittagong Hill Tracts region.

Activists say the government has failed to honour an agreement signed 20 years ago to restore their lands.

"The rights of indigenous people are not recognised. They are marginalised and disadvantaged because the law does not back them," she said.

"People belonging to the majority religion, ethnic group and having the backing of political parties - that is Bangladeshi Muslim men, who are the majority - act with a certain impunity against everyone else."

Amnesty International last week called for a thorough investigation into the latest threats against Kamal and action from the government to ensure her safety.

Two days after the government ordered the Lady Justice statue removed, they ordered it put back up, in a less prominent location.

Kamal said the threats will not stop her work.

"I am nearly 70, and I am not going to change my ways now ... I hope that others will also come forward to do this work, and I hope that the state will listen to us."

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