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Amnesty urges Bangladesh to end crackdown on freedom of expression online

  • Published at 05:01 am July 26th, 2021
gavel DSA
Representational photo: Bigstock

The UK-based rights body presses for the repeal of the Digital Security Act (DSA)

Amnesty International has urged the authorities in Bangladesh to end the crackdown on people’s right to freedom of expression online and repeal the Digital Security Act (DSA), unless it is amended in compliance with international human rights law and standards.

The UK-based rights body voiced its demands in a briefing released on Monday.

The briefing, “No space for dissent”, examines cases under the DSA against 10 individuals who have been subjected to a wide range of human rights violations, including enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture, “simply for criticizing powerful people on social media”.

Bangladesh has at least 433 people imprisoned under the DSA as of July 2021, most of whom are held on allegations of publishing false and offensive information online, said Amnesty International.

Those targeted include journalists, cartoonists, musicians, activists, entrepreneurs, students and even a farmer who cannot read or write, it added.

“In one case, writer Mushtaq Ahmed died in prison after languishing there for 10 months without trial on accusations under the DSA. One inmate alleged that he was subjected to torture,” it said. 

Mushtaq Ahmed was arrested in May 2020 for criticizing on Facebook the Bangladesh government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Denied bail at least six times, he died in prison on February 25 this year.

“Mushtaq Ahmed should not have spent a single minute in prison, let alone his final ones. Many provisions in the DSA are criminalizing conducts 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,” said Saad Hammadi, Amnesty International’s South Asia campaigner.

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 at present, he added.

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Hammadi continued: “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 organizations. Bangladeshi authorities must release all prisoners held solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression.

“We remind the Bangladeshi authorities about the recommendations they accepted from several UN member states during the country’s last Universal Periodic Review in May 2018, with regards to taking concrete measures to bring all legislation including the DSA in conformity with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

Widespread abuse of DSA

Cases against eight out of 10 individuals featured in Amnesty International's briefing were either filed by lawmakers, members of the ruling Awami League or law enforcement officials.

Emdadul Haque Milon, a pharmacist and contractor, told Amnesty that a local political leader of the Awami League had him detained on March 3 last year under the DSA for a Facebook post wherein he criticized the Bangladesh government’s invitation to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the birth centenary of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. 

Milon alleged that the politician had him detained to stop him from submitting a proposal for a government contract that subsequently went to the politician’s son-in-law. He was eventually released on bail after 23 days.

A law enforcement official told the rights organization that it is their responsibility to curb criticism against the government. 

However, international human rights law clearly states that criticism of the authorities can never be legitimately punished.

The Cyber Tribunal based in Dhaka, which holds trials of cybercrimes including cases filed under the DSA, recorded 199 cases under trial between January 1 and May 6, 2021. It has dismissed 97 out of the 199 cases for lacking merit and evidence, according to Amnesty International.

“That, however, did not waive the human rights violations that people have suffered including facing detention for various periods even before the cases appeared for trial,” Amnesty said.

Saad Hammadi remarked that the volume of DSA cases turned down by the tribunal demonstrates the way in which powerful people in Bangladesh have weaponized the law to silence dissent. 

“The UN member states that expressed concern over the right to freedom of expression during Bangladesh’s Universal Periodic Review must continue to raise concerns about the ongoing violations being committed under the DSA and work with the authorities at implementing their recommendations to ensure critical voices are no longer silenced,” said the rights activist.

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