Bangladeshi authorities must end the crackdown on right to freedom of expression online and urgently repeal or amend the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA), Amnesty International said in a new briefing released on Monday.
Introduced in October 2018, the DSA – a law that contains overbroad and vague provisions granting authorities extensive powers – is increasingly being used to stifle dissent online, with punishments that can extend to life imprisonment.
The briefing, No space for dissent: Bangladesh’s Crackdown on Freedom of Expression Online, examines cases under the DSA against 10 people who have been subjected to a wide range of human rights violations simply for criticising powerful people on social media.
At least 433 people are currently imprisoned under the DSA as of this month, most held on allegations of publishing false, offensive, derogatory or defamatory information online.
Those targeted include journalists, cartoonists, musicians, activists, entrepreneurs and students, amongst others.
Saad Hammadi, Amnesty International’s South Asia Campaigner, said: ‘The actions taken by the authorities under the purview of the DSA demonstrate just how dangerous it has become to speak out and voice dissenting views in Bangladesh today.
‘These undue restrictions on different forms of expression have sent a chilling effect across Bangladeshi society and have severely curbed the space for independent media and civil society organisations.
‘The Bangladeshi authorities must release all prisoners held solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression.’
The DSA gives arbitrary powers to law enforcement agencies to conduct searches, seize devices, and arrest individuals without warrant simply for a comment they may have shared online, in violation of the right to freedom of expression enshrined under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Bangladesh is a party.
Amnesty is calling for the DSA to be repealed, unless it can be amended in compliance with international human rights law and standards.
Death in prison
In one case, writer Mushtaq Ahmed died in prison after languishing for 10 months without trial on accusations under the DSA.
One inmate alleged that he was subjected to torture.
Ahmed was arrested in May 2020 for criticising the Bangladeshi government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic on Facebook.
After being denied bail at least six times, he reportedly died of a heart attack in prison on 25 February 2021.
On 26 February 2021, rights activist Ruhul Amin was arrested for a Facebook post criticising the Bangladeshi government and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for the death of Ahmed.
He was subjected to intrusive questioning and imprisoned for 45 days before he was eventually released on bail.
Saad Hammadi added: ‘Mushtaq Ahmed should not have spent a single minute in prison, let alone his final ones.
‘Many provisions in the DSA are criminalising conduct that should not constitute an offence in the first place.
‘We urge the authorities to break away from this practice of using the law as a weapon against dissent.’
Amnesty has found a concerning pattern that indicates authorities are weaponising different sections of the DSA to target and harass critical voices.
Cases against eight out of 10 individuals featured in the briefing have been filed by lawmakers, members of ruling Awami League party or law enforcement officials.
A law enforcement official told Amnesty that it is their responsibility to contain criticism against the government.
Yet international human rights law is clear that criticism of the authorities can never be legitimately punished.
The way in which defamation is criminalised under the DSA shows the serious shortcomings of a criminal approach to defamation, where the law has been further instrumentalised to silence dissent.
Amnesty is calling on the Bangladeshi authorities to ensure that defamation is treated as a matter for civil litigation, not criminal.
The Cyber Tribunal in Dhaka has dismissed nearly 50 per cent of the cases (or 97 out of 199) during the period under review for lacking merit and evidence.
However, many people have still endured human rights violations in that time, including facing detention even before the cases appeared for trial.
Police arrested Mohammad Akhtaruzzaman on July 18 under the Digital Security Act (DSA) for a Facebook post accusing a health official and his office assistant of corruption.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has urged the police to drop the case against him.
Akhtaruzzaman is a Bogura district correspondent for the Bengali-language daily newspaper Banijjo Pratidin and was arrested following a complaint filed by Shamima Akter with Bogura Sadar Police Station on July 17.
The complaint was made over a Facebook Post uploaded on July 17 from the Facebook name ‘Aftab Ahmed’ accusing Md Samir Hossain Mishu, the Bogura Sadar Upazila Health and Family Planning Officer and his office’s Head Assistant and Accountant, Shamima Akter of embezzling money.
According to Emran Mahmud Tuhin, Bogura Police Detective Branch inspector, the Aftab Ahmed Facebook ID was operated by Akhtaruzzaman. After Akhtaruzzaman’s arrest, Sadar Upazila Family Planning Office filed against Akhtaruzzaman under the DSA, and he was sent to jail by a court on the same day.
IFJ’s South Asia Press Freedom Report 2020-2021 noted the Bangladesh government’s weaponisation of the DSA to crackdown on free speech, often targeting journalists.
The Bangladesh Manobadhikar Sangbadik Forum (BMSF) said: ‘The BMSF condemns the arrest of journalist Md Akhtaruzzaman under DSA and demands his immediate release.’
The IFJ said: ‘The IFJ demand police withdraw the case against Md Akhtaruzzaman.
‘The IFJ urges the Bangladesh government to amend the Digital Security Act and bring it in line with Bangladesh’s constitutionally enshrined freedom of expression and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, which Bangladesh is a party to.’
Thugs arrested after
brutal beating of
Police have arrested three people in connection with an attack on Bahannor Alo correspondent Selim Shamrat, who was attacked while investigating an illegal land seizure on July 11.
The IFJ has condemned the attack on the journalist and called on police to ensure the investigation is followed through.
Shamrat was attacked when he went to investigate a land grabbing incident in the Barakhata area.
Locals said that he was pushed to the ground and then badly beaten.
Shamrat said: ‘At one point the land grabbers attacked me without any reason, pushed me to the ground, and started beating me mercilessly.’ Local people then rescued him while the attackers fled the scene.
Shamrat said that the attackers had asked to see his identification card before they beat him.
An eyewitness to the attack, Mizanur Rahman, said the attackers are well known for grabbing land illegally in the Barakhata area.
The officer-in-charge, Ershadul Alam, reported that police originally went to arrest the attackers in a raid but could not them. However, the three men were arrested on July 14 after being on the run for three days
The IFJ said: ‘The protection of journalists must be made a priority in the Barakhata area where there is a noted history of land grabbing. Journalists reporting in the public interest need to be protected and justice is vital.’
- Canada’s Steelworkers Humanity Fund (SHF) is contributing $45,000 in emergency relief to Bangladeshi garment workers reeling from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The emergency funding is being provided to long-time SHF partner the Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity (BCWS) to assist workers in dire need of support.
‘Canadian garment companies with suppliers in Bangladesh have made significant profits during the pandemic, while garment workers are even worse off than before,’ says Ken Neumann, United Steelworkers National Director and President of the SHF.
‘The Steelworkers Humanity Fund contribution will make a big difference in the lives of many, but it is not nearly enough. Canadian brands have the power and the means to address the Covid wage gap and wage theft,’ Neumann says.
‘Steelworkers’ support at this time of crisis will be deeply appreciated by thousands of garment workers who were earning poverty wages before Covid. With no savings, job loss and wage theft during the pandemic has left many of these workers destitute,’ says Kalpona Akter, Director of the BCWS.
‘Canadian garment brands and retailers have a responsibility to protect the incomes of the women working in their global supply chains, but they have not yet done what they can, and should, be doing,’ adds Akter.
The Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity has been at the forefront of the struggle for workers’ safety, workers’ rights and against gender-based violence in Bangladesh.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, BCWS staff have been working flat out to ensure garment workers’ safety and incomes are protected.