Bangladeshi NGO: Cases under Digital Security Act Blew Up in 2021

Ahammad Foyez
Bangladeshi NGO: Cases under Digital Security Act Blew Up in 2021 Bangladeshis hold photos of their missing relatives during a rally in Dhaka marking the International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearances, Aug. 30, 2021.

Bangladesh saw a nearly ninefold increase in cases filed under the Digital Security Act in 2021 for perceived online criticism of officials including the prime minister and the country’s founder, compared with 2020, a leading human rights organization said in its annual report.

As many as 1,134 cases were lodged last year against journalists and alleged government critics under the online security law, according Ain-O-Salish Kendra (ASK). By comparison, 130 cases were filed in 2020 and 63 cases in 2019.

“The DSA was used to curb people’s rights of freedom of expression including when writer Mushtaq Ahmed, who was arrested in a DSA case, died in jail,” ASK said in releasing its report on Dec. 31.

Ahmed was pronounced dead upon arrival at a hospital in Gazipur on Feb. 25, 2021, after losing consciousness while in custody at the Kashimpur High-Security Prison. The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a notorious police unit, had arrested Mushtaq at his home in Dhaka on May 5, 2020, over his alleged involvement in spreading disinformation against the government on social media.

Last month, the United States Treasury Department imposed financial sanctions against RAB and six current and former officers from the Bangladeshi force over alleged serious human rights abuses. The U.S. move placed RAB among some of the worst rights abusers in the world, including those involved in the racial profiling and mass detention of ethnic Uyghurs in China and the slaughter of civilians in post-coup Myanmar.

The year 2021, meanwhile, marked the 50th anniversary of the war in which Bangladesh broke free from Pakistan and became its own nation. Throughout the golden jubilee year, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government celebrated the memory of her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s founding leader who was assassinated in 1975, with programs and public art works across the country.

Apart from the Digital Security Act, the country has a strict law by which people can be arrested and prosecuted for acts or speech seen as defaming Mujibur’s name or memory.

The ASK report did not detail how many of the 1,134 cases had been prosecuted.

“The country witnessed many sensational events involving rights violations including communal unrest, enforced disappearances, rapes, border killings, the killing of a Rohingya leader and extrajudicial killings,” the report also said, dubbing 2021 as the “year of human rights violations.”

The ASK released its findings a day after Law Minister Anisul Huq said that the government would amend the DSA, which was passed in 2018, if necessary.

“The law has been abused and misused in some cases,” he told reporters at the National Press Club in Dhaka.

On Monday, Huq clarified the government’s stance.

“The government is very cautious about the use of the DSA. We are working to ensure the best practice of the law,” he told BenarNews. “A team has been formed comprising representatives from the law, information and communication technology, and home ministries.”

On Friday, Transparency International Bangladesh issued a statement requesting representatives from media and civil society be included in efforts to review and amend the act.

“Though Law Minister Anisul Huq admitted the misuse of the Digital Security Act … TIB cautiously welcomes his statement,” a press release said.

‘A name that creates fear’

Meanwhile, Faruq Faisal, regional director of ARTICLE 19, a London-based NGO that monitors freedom of speech violations against journalists, called on Bangladesh’s government to amend the law as soon as possible. He said the country was facing an image crisis worldwide because of rights violations.

“The government should maintain the global standard of human rights as well as freedom of expression and it must amend the DSA immediately,” he told BenarNews. “A large number of journalists were arrested and landed in jail in DSA cases mainly for criticizing government, ministers and other powerful people.”

Among those is photojournalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol, who faces three cases related to DSA violations.

“This DSA has become the main weapon of stopping people from voicing calls for human rights. The law should be dropped and all cases filed under it should be suspended,” he told BenarNews. “DSA is a name that creates fear for all types of people, mostly for journalists.”

Activists stage a rally in Dhaka demanding the repeal of Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act, Feb. 26, 2021, a day after writer Mushtaq Ahmed died after being held in police custody. [BenarNews]

Report details

In 2021, ASK data showed, six of seven people who went missing after crossing paths with law enforcement agencies were produced in court. A year earlier, six people disappeared while four were produced in court and two are still missing.

ASK said Imam Mahadi Hasan Dollar from Mymensingh district, who was picked up on Nov. 6, 2021, and is still missing, was detained by a group of people riding two motorcycles and in a microbus.

“His wife told an ASK representative that law enforcement agency members picked up her husband, businessman Dollar,” the report said.

In addition, ASK said at least 80 people were victims of extrajudicial killings in 2021.

“Of the 80 victims, as many as 51 were killed in gunfights or crossfire with law enforcing agencies, while eight died while under the custody of law enforcers,” ASK general secretary Nur Khan Liton said.

“We are demanding an independent commission to investigate every case of extrajudicial killing and enforced disappearance,” he told BenarNews.

He said at least 210 journalists were targeted by attacks, threats or harassment from law enforcers, government officials and other influential people in 2021.

Other ASK findings include reports that at least 1,321 women were victims of rape and gang rape across the country in 2021. In addition, at least 113 people died and more than 7,000 were injured in 627 incidents of electoral violence across the country.

Huq, the law minister, challenged the report’s findings.

“There are no incidents of extrajudicial killing and enforced disappearance in Bangladesh. If any such incident takes place, the government is taking action,” he told BenarNews.

“The law is equal for all. I am suggesting all go to court or concerned police stations to file complaints if they become victims of any incident,” he said.


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