Bangladesh Must Suspend Digital Security Act, UN Rights Chief Says

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Bangladesh Must Suspend Digital Security Act, UN Rights Chief Says Activists from left parties hold placards during a protest march demanding the repeal of the Digital Security Act in Dhaka, March 1, 2021.

The United Nations rights chief on Monday urged Bangladesh to ensure an independent and transparent probe into the death of imprisoned writer Mushtaq Ahmed, as protests raged for a fourth day demanding repeal of the draconian Digital Security Act.

Meanwhile, a court postponed to Wednesday a decision on whether to grant bail to cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore, who was arrested along with Ahmed and is said to be seriously ill.

“The government must ensure that its investigation into Ahmed’s death is prompt, transparent and independent, and that any allegations of ill-treatment of other detainees are also immediately investigated,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle 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,” Bachelet said.

Bangladesh, she said, needs to suspend application of the act and bring its provisions in line with the requirements of international human rights law.

“All those detained under this Act for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and opinion must be released,” Bachelet said.

Ahmed, 53, was arrested in May and died in hospital on Thursday after suddenly falling ill, prison officials said. He had been refused bail six times since his arrest – the last time two days before his death. Two government committees are investigating the cause of his death.

Ahmed had published an article on Facebook criticizing the shortage of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers amid the coronavirus pandemic, PEN America and HRW said.

He was arrested “on charges of spreading anti-government remarks and rumors regarding the coronavirus situation and various law enforcement agencies,” police said at the time of the arrest.

The Digital Security Act allows police to arrest people without a warrant.

The death sparked a chorus of concern from people inside and outside the country about the repression of free speech in Bangladesh.

Last year, at least 142 people faced cases under the Digital Security Act, which was passed by the ruling Awami League government in October 2018, according to rights group Odhikar.

'No possibility to revoke act'

Meanwhile, the government categorically said it would not repeal the Digital Security Act, as it was framed and passed for the security of people in the digital space. But it will review its application, Law Minister Anisul Huq told BenarNews on Monday.

“I am aware of the statement by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. But there is no possibility to revoke the act,” Huq said.

“We will review the abuses of the law. I would like to make it clear that we are not reviewing the law; we are reviewing the abuses.”

Anger over Ahmed’s death spilled onto the streets for the fourth day in a row on Monday, with protestors demanding the release of others who were arrested along with Ahmed, such as cartoonist Kishore, who is diabetic.

Left-leaning organizations, members of the student wing of the main opposition party, Bangladesh National Party, and free speech activists protested in Dhaka, while smaller protests were held in almost every district of the country.

In a statement, 51 prominent public figures including lawyers, activists and university professors called for a judicial inquiry into Ahmed’s death, calling it “a state killing,” Bangladesh news outlet Prothom Alo reported.

‘No death is desired’

In a press conference on Saturday in which she lauded Bangladesh’s development progress, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina appeared to downplay international concern over Ahmed’s death.

“What can we do if someone dies after falling sick?” she said. “No death is desired. It is also not desired that unrest will be created,” AFP quoted her as saying.

“We’ve built a Digital Bangladesh, and now it is our duty to provide the people with digital security,” she said.

“It’s our duty to prevent the youth from taking a wrong path or getting involved in militancy and terrorism; we must make sure that they do not do anything harmful to the country and the people,” bdnews24 quoted her as saying.

“This is why digital security is absolutely necessary.”

Meanwhile, the Dhaka High Court on Monday said it would give its verdict on a bail plea for cartoonist Kishore on Wednesday, his lawyer, Jyotirmoy Barua, told BenarNews.

When Kishore and Ahmed were brought to court last week, local media had reported that the two looked underweight.

In addition, Kishore had reported abuse by prison guards, according to advocacy group Cartoonists Rights Network International.

“He is an insulin-dependent diabetic, and we had long expected he would not fare well in custody while unable to confidently and freely take adequate injections. But the reported issues with his eyesight and infected wounds in his ears and on his left leg as well as loss of weight cannot be easily explained merely by insulin rationing,” the group said in a statement Friday.

“[W]e are now quite convinced that the cartoonist is in imminent danger of death. His immediate release is absolutely essential,” the group said in a statement on Friday, after Ahmed’s death.

The U.N.’s Bachelet on Monday reminded authorities of their obligation to promptly and effectively investigate the claims and to ensure Kishore’s safety and well-being.


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