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OP-ED: Of police excesses and the curious case of the DSA

  • Published at 09:57 am September 5th, 2020

Will a citizen like Shipra enjoy the same basic rights as a police officer or a BCL activist?

An individual’s social standing is not the only way we Bangladeshis learn the Orwellian dictum that some are more equal than others. 

In Bangladesh’s checkered history, even ministers and MPs, once voted out of power, can be put behind bars when their involvement with criminal activities is proved (former state minister for home Lutfozzaman Babar, for example). But if you are a member of a law enforcement agency, you are more equal than the rest, without ever having to worry about your tenure in power. 

Picking up innocent people without a warrant and torturing them in custody is one of the oldest colonial tricks that every government since the country’s independence has pulled and abused to achieve political ends. 

One still would have expected that in this time and age when flow of information has visibly gone through many stages of revolution there would at least be some semblance of a limit to the excesses law enforcement personnel enjoy. But as things are turning out for Shipra Rani Devnath and Shahedul Islam Sifat, two of the three-member film crew of slain Major (retd) Sinha Mohammad Rashed Khan, for the police there seems to be no limit whatsoever. 

After Sinha was shot dead on the evening of July 31, Sifat, who was with Sinha, was roughed up, and Shipra and Tahsin Rifat Nur, who stayed back at Nilima Resort in Himchhari, were searched and detained without a warrant. Police also seized their laptops, mobiles, hard drives, and other equipment. 

Later on, Sifat was implicated in two cases of murder and narcotics and Shipra in a case filed under the Drug Control Act. After they were released on bail, both Shipra and Sifat told media that yaba, marijuana, and liquor were planted on them and also, their laptops, among other personal possessions, were not mentioned in the seizure lists prepared by police.

History repeats itself

Many of our colleagues in the journalistic community have expressed surprise at the heavy-handed way Shipra and Sifat were treated by police. Was this really surprising, though? Having experienced a reign of terror infused with bombings and killings by militant outfits, and shootouts and killings by Rab, during the BNP-led coalition from 2001–2006, we were delighted to see a new coalition assume power in 2009 through a landslide victory, a coalition we hoped would restore democracy and set the country on the right path.  

Contrary to our expectations, the AL-led 14-party alliance has since given law enforcement agencies a free rein to carry out extra-judicial practices. People may have forgotten many instances of police brutality that had happened as far back as 2011 or 2012 because all such alienated cases of violence were to be overshadowed by the sensational Narayanganj seven-murder cases in 2014. Two names from the pre-seven-murder time have nonetheless etched themselves somewhat indelibly on my mind. 

On January 10, 2011, members of Pallabi Police shot dead a 19-year-old man named Imtiaz Hossain Abir in an “encounter” in a slum area of Bauniabandh Balurmath near Kalshi in Mirpur. There was no record of his having ever been connected to any gang or terrorist group. 

The stars have not been so unkind to the other person who is still alive. In the early hours of July 16, 2011, Khilgaon OC Helal Uddin picked up DU student Abdul Kadar, beat him up, stabbed him in the left leg and implicated him in three false cases. 

I especially cite these two examples to show how deliberately brutal policemen can be when there is no issue of self-defense. Then imagine how far they can go when their cold-blooded crime, revealed to the whole world, has pushed them to an existential precipice. That’s precisely what triggered the heavy-handed handling of Shipra and Sifat’s personal possessions. 

Planting yaba pills on arrestees they plan to frame is always their safest bet, and more so in this case. After all, it’s Cox’s Bazar where yaba pills flow in and out in enormous quantities to be shipped to the whole country. Nothing surprising there. But why were they so desperate about seizing the arrestees’ personal possessions and why were they so fishy about them? Why was their version of the items seized at odds with that of the witnesses they presented?

The Sinha murder case has had a domino effect, first, on the Cox’s Bazar police and secondly, on the entire force. Victims who hitherto stayed silent fearing further abuse are speaking up all across the country, bringing to light numerous cases of extra-judicial killings and police brutalities. 

This has made the police force even more desperate. As things stand, not only the fate of Teknaf OC Pradip Kumar Saha, Inspector Liaqat Ali, and all the other accused in the Sinha murder case (who are facing trial as accused in a murder case filed by Sinha’s sister), but also the image of the entire police department seems to depend a lot on this case. 

The DSA: Use or abuse?

On August 14, Satkhira’s Superintendent of Police (SP) Mohammad Mostafizur Rahman posted Shipra’s personal photographs on Facebook along with comments in which he raised questions about her innocence. Later, as if carried away by a spirit of fraternity, SP Mizanur Rahman Shelley of the PBI’s Dhaka Metro South unit made a similar post with her photos; in his caption, Shelley claimed that the case against Shipra was justified.

You can imagine what followed when two SPs posted those photos and comments along such defamatory lines. Hordes of people, both within and outside the police force, shared those or similar posts. Sharing Shipra’s personal photos soon took the shape of an organized campaign aimed solely at a full-scale character assassination of Shipra, appealing to the slandering mind-set of a section of people who find concepts of equal rights for women in all spheres of life squarely unacceptable. 

What they are aiming to achieve with this campaign is clear as day. If public opinion is influenced in favour of the accused and against Shipra and Sifat, it may come to the aid of their accused “brothers” and affect the outcome of the trial into the bargain. 

Several questions cross our minds at this juncture. How did they get hold of Shipra’s personal photos and other digital contents in the first place? If her personal possessions were seized for the sake of investigation, the contents they contain must be preserved and protected, on the one hand, to ensure that trial proceedings are not disrupted, and on the other, to uphold her right to privacy. Then how come those were shared with two SPs and numerous other officers in the force who have no jurisdiction whatsoever to deal with matters that happened in Cox’s Bazar? 

In a video statement sent to Maasranga TV on August 17, Shipra said: “They took my personal photographs from social media and different projects, photoshopped and tailored them, and published them for various purposes.” “Fake Facebook and Instagram accounts were created in my name,” she added.

This is where the Digital Security Act comes in. Termed “a dark law” by journalists and rights activists, the DSA replaced the ICT Act. Ever since its promulgation in October 2018, it has become the most effective legal tool to silence and harass dissenting voices or people critical either of the government or of individuals and organizations favoured by the government, just as the Editors’ Council, rights activists, and law experts predicted.

Although journalists have been the main target of the act, political activists, writers, university teachers, and students have been sued and arrested under the act for critical posts or contents published online. Even a ninth-grader was not spared and arrested for his comments on the prime minister regarding an announcement about imposing an additional tax on mobile phone use.  

The draconian Section 57 of the ICT Act, which allowed arrests without warrant, has been retained in the DSA in full force, with many other provisions regarding punishments and fines getting outrageously stricter. As long as any content can be shown to have been published online, anyone from any corner of the country can file a case against the content’s writer and publisher. Consider the case of photojournalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol. Incarcerated for nearly four months now, he’s facing trial in three cases filed by activists of the AL and its youth front, the Jubo League. 

Looking into whether the cases filed against him or the others actually have any legal ground is not a prerequisite, although reassurances were issued time and again by both the law minister and the information minister in the months preceding and following the act’s promulgation. Most alarming is the trend that police personnel do not refuse to take such cases as long as the plaintiff is in their -- or the ruling coalition’s -- good books. 

What does the DSA actually say about this?

Now let’s take a quick look at what, according to the act, exactly constitutes an offense within its legal purview so that we can fully comprehend whether the SPs' actions are punishable offenses under the act or not. 

According to Section 29 of Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act (DSA), “If a person commits an offense of publication or broadcasts defamatory information as described in Section 499 of the Penal Code (Act XLV of 1860) on any website or in any other electronic format then they will be sentenced to a term of imprisonment not exceeding three years, or fines not exceeding TK 500,000 or both.”

So what does the Penal Code section, referred above, say about this? According to Section 499 of the Penal Code (Act XLV of 1860), “Whoever by words either spoken or intended to be read, or by signs or by visible representations, makes or publishes any imputation concerning any person intending to harm, or knowing or having reason to believe that such imputation will harm the reputation or such person, is said, except in the cases hereinafter excepted, to defame that person.”

These two sections, from the DSA and the Penal Code respectively, alone can prove that the SPs’ FB posts are “visible representations” that “will harm the reputation” of Shipra. 

Other sections in the DSA are highly relevant, too. In Section 2, while laying down definitions of key terms used in the act, “illegal entrance” is defined as “entrance without the permission of any person or authority or entrance in violation of the conditions of permission of entrance by the said person or authority into any computer or digital device or digital network system … with the use of a digital device.”

It leaves us sickeningly worried to think how shamelessly the two SPs and hundreds of their acolytes offend the law. That they got hold of Shipra’s personal stuff is in itself a digital crime on the ground of “illegal entrance” and that they shared it on FB without her permission is another crime on the ground of defamation both under the Penal Code as well as the DSA. They of all people should know what constitutes an offense under the DSA. It is beyond our comprehension why two first class gazetted officers trampled laws to protect Pradip and Liaqat when they are facing trial.

The ad hominem line of attack on Shipra

Referring to the contents of those photos and videos, some of which Shipra has dismissed as doctored, one might still quip that a young woman who does all of those things might actually have narcotics in her possession. That’s a sentiment being widely circulated on social networking sites. 

There, however, are two different points woven into one here. First, Shipra smokes cigarettes, and based on those contents, she occasionally drinks and also knows how to dance. Second, a bunch of police officers have filed a narcotics case against her. Now if you seek to connect the first point to the second, you are, willingly or unwillingly, diving into the trap the police have laid out for you, buttressing the ad hominem line of attack and thus, appealing to people’s misogynist perceptions as opposed to reason and law. 

That’s why, instead of imposing a bridge between them, let’s consider these two points in their separate spheres. 

Whether Shipra smokes or occasionally drinks or dances is entirely a matter of her personal choice. She has every right to do so as a citizen of this country. If a chauvinistic man, or a woman, or a cop for that matter, judges her for the choices she makes, that’s their personal garbage to bear. Their personal judgments, motivated by religious or political or administrative teachings, are nobody’s concern. 

As for the narcotics cases filed against her and Sifat, the cracks in the cases have already begun to show. Admitting to anomalies in the case against Shipra, Ramu OC Abul Khair apologized in court on August 27 for making two separate lists for seized items, both containing inconsistencies. As more and more of the despicable crimes committed by the accused in the Sinha murder case are coming to light, it is becoming clearer by the day that Shipra, Sifat, and Sinha are just three of numerous victims they had tortured and killed or extorted money from.

Justice for Shipra

In the video statement referred above, Shipra also said, emphatically: “Their effort to defame me is an act of disrespect and oppression against all those women who work outside.” Then she added: “I demand justice for the killing of major Sinha and the harassment against me and my co-workers …”

Accordingly, on August 19 Shipra went to Cox’s Bazar Sadar Model Police Station to file a case under the Digital Security Act against the two SPs and 150 others over their Facebook posts. Predictably, OC Md Khairuzzaman refused to take her case. On August 16, Supreme Court lawyer Manoj Kumar Bhowmik submitted a writ to the High Court as a public interest litigation, seeking an order to conduct a probe into the cyber-bullying that Shipra had been subjected to. The court rejected the petition but suggested there was an alternative way to get remedy from the lower court. 

In 2011, when former DU student Kadar had been detained on trumped-up charges, he received all-out media support. Spurred on by media and progressive political parties, he sued OC Helal in 2012 despite prolonged period of threats and harassment. Eventually he came out victorious. A lower court sentenced OC Helal to three years in jail in May 2015.

The media has stood by Shipra like it had by Kadar and many others. Shipra, too, has expressed her determination to sue the police officers involved in cyber-bullying her. But do the challenges she’s faced since Sinha’s murder compare to what Kadar had? Kadar had to deal with violence, and threats that more violence would follow if he didn’t withdraw his case. For Shipra, the challenges are marked by one of the dirtiest gender biases -- victim-shaming. 

Even before the wound left by the shocking news of her team leader’s murder has healed, fresh wounds are being inflicted on her every day either by an apparently endless march of trolls and hate speeches directed solely at her, or by newer forms of harassment invented or exercised by police. 

We nevertheless pin all our hopes on Shipra as well as the country’s justice system. We hope the judiciary, unlike the country’s executive and legislative organs, will uphold that laws are for use and not for abuse, and that law takes its own course. We hope a lower court, or the High Court, upon taking into cognizance Shipra’s case under the DSA, will stand by her and ensure that she enjoys the same rights as a police officer or an AL or BCL activist does. 

We know the waves of challenges will rise higher, assuming insurmountable shapes, yet Shipra has demonstrated tremendous courage so far. We hope she keeps her spirits up, continues her fight, and does not relent until due punishments are meted out to the people who violated her rights to privacy and filed false charges against her.

Rifat Munim is Literary Editor, Dhaka Tribune.

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