Bangladesh Tribunal Charges Another Journalist Under Digital Security Act

Sharif Khiam
Bangladesh Tribunal Charges Another Journalist Under Digital Security Act Standing near Dhaka University, photojournalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol talks to BenarNews about his experience in jail, Feb. 28, 2021.
[Sharif Khiam/BenarNews]

A cyber tribunal in Bangladesh on Monday charged yet another journalist under the controversial Digital Security Act, officials said, referring to the law that the United Nations and others said muzzles freedom of speech online.

The Dhaka tribunal charged photojournalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol with violating the act by circulating defamatory information on Facebook about some ruling party leaders, officials said Monday.

“Judge Ash Sams Joglul Hossain framed charges against him after hearing both sides. The court also fixed Jan. 2 to start recording deposition of witnesses,” Public Prosecutor Nazrul Islam Shamim told BenarNews.

“The investigating officer (IO) has found truth in the allegations against Kajol. … That is why we argued to indict him and start trial.”

Kajol, who went missing in March 2020 and was not located for 53 days, pleaded not guilty.

“I am innocent,” Kajol said.

His lawyer, Jyotirmoy Barua, said the journalist was a victim of conspiracy.

“I argued on points of law for an hour,” Barua said in a Facebook post after the indictment. “Finally, the judge said ‘charges framed’ without giving any reasons.”

Meanwhile, Nazrul, the prosecutor, said 15 to 20 people would testify against Kajol.

“The state will seek the highest punishment under the law,” Nazrul said.

The charges carry a maximum penalty of 10 million taka (U.S. $117,000) and up to 10 years in prison.

In March, Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged Bangladesh to review the Digital Security Act after writer Mushtaq Ahmed died while in custody.

Ahmed died Feb. 25 after he was transferred to a prison hospital for treatment. He had spent nine months in pre-trial detention for allegedly publishing an article and sharing Facebook posts critical of the government’s COVID-19 response.

“There needs to be an overhaul of the Digital Security Act under which Ahmed was charged – and all those detained under this Act for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and opinion must be released,” Bachelet said in a statement.

“Various U.N. human rights bodies have long raised concerns about the ill-defined, overly broad provisions of the Digital Security Act that have been used to punish criticism of the government.”

Last year, at least 142 people, including journalists, writers and cartoonists, faced cases under the act, which was passed by the ruling Awami League government in October 2018, according to rights group Odhikar.

‘No room for free expression’

A member of Dhaka’s National Press Club said he was not hopeful the photojournalist would be treated fairly.

“I am doubtful whether Kajol will get justice,” Elias Khan, the club’s general secretary, told BenarNews.

“I am skeptical because of the way Kajol has been harassed since the beginning of the incident,” Khan said, also alleging there was something fishy about him going missing for close to two months.

Kajol, editor of the fortnightly magazine Pokkhokal, went missing March 10, 2020, a day after Saifuzzaman Shikhor, a lawmaker with the ruling Awami League, filed a criminal defamation suit against him and 31 others.

Awami League activists then filed two more cases against Kajol on March 10 and 11. One accused Kajol of committing extortion by “obtaining information illegally” and publishing “false, intimidating and defamatory” material on Facebook and Messenger, according to Amnesty International.

Border guards on May 3 arrested Kajol as he walked into Bangladesh from India without a passport. Police brought him to a court in southwestern Jessore district, on the West Bengal border, and he was sent to jail, according to multiple accounts.

“He was discovered in a field, blindfolded, with his legs and arms bound,” Human Rights Watch said in its report on Aug. 11, 2020.

National Press Club’s Khan also claimed that Kajol was detained without bail for seven months because ruling party leaders had filed a case against him

“The government has drafted and enforced the Digital Security Act in such a way that there is no room for free expression,” Khan said.


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