Bangladesh must put an end to the wave of repression in the country that has seen journalists being targeted and others threatened, Amnesty International said this week, as the human rights organization called on the government to promptly amend the draconian Digital Security Act in compliance with international human rights law.
"Journalists in Bangladesh are being silenced under the draconian Digital Security Act. Recent cases against journalists, including a prominent newspaper editor, a journalist who was tortured and a newspaper editor feared to be a victim of enforced disappearance are chilling reminders that freely expressing one's views in Bangladesh can come at a very high cost," said Saad Hammadi, South Asia Campaigner at Amnesty International.
Police have denied any information about the whereabouts of journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol of Manabzamin, who has not been seen or heard from since 10 March 2020, a day after police registered a case against him and 31 others under Bangladesh's troubling Digital Security Act for publishing "false, offensive and defamatory" content on Facebook.
"The circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Shafiqul Islam Kajol raise serious alarms and send a chilling message that people can no longer express their opinions freely and safely. The authorities must urgently determine his fate and whereabouts, and ensure he is immediately released if under state custody," said Saad Hammadi.
Despite Bangladesh's denial of the allegations of enforced disappearances, human rights organisations have repeatedly raised concerns about the practice of unacknowledged detention and enforced disappearances.
Last year, the local human rights organization Odhikar documented at least 34 incidents of alleged enforced disappearances. Eight of them were later found dead, 17 were shown arrested while the fate and whereabouts of the other nine remain unknown.
When reviewing Bangladesh's initial report on its implementation of the Convention Against Torture, the UN Committee Against Torture regretted that Bangladesh did not provide any information about the status of investigations into allegations of enforced disappearances.
Bangla daily Manabzamin published a critical report on 2 March involving lawmakers, bureaucrats and businessmen.
Although the report did not mention his name, on 9 March Awami League lawmaker Saifuzzaman Shikhor filed a case under the Digital Security Act accusing the newspaper editor Matiur Rahman Chowdhury, journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol and 30 others for "deteriorating law and order" by sharing on Facebook "false, offensive and defamatory" posts which carried his name.
Shafiqul Islam Kajol is accused of "deteriorating law and order" by publishing "false, offensive and defamatory" content on Facebook in a case against prominent newspaper editor Matiur Rahman Chowdhury and 30 others under the draconian Digital Security Act. The law gives the power to security agencies to hold individuals indefinitely in pretrial detention. If convicted, they could each face up to seven years in jail.
Businessman Emdadul Haque Milon was arrested on 3 March simply for a Facebook post expressing his concern about the decision to extend a State invitation to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to visit Bangladesh. He was accused of "deteriorating law and order" under the DSA, and is now held in pretrial detention indefinitely. If convicted, he could face up to seven years in jail. Folk singer Shariat Boyati was arrested on 11 January and is facing an indefinite detention for stating that music is not forbidden in the Qur'an. He is accused of "hurting religious sentiment" under the DSA and if convicted, he could face up to five years in jail.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has called on Bangladesh to "urgently revise the Digital Security Act, to ensure that it is in line with international human rights law and that it provides for checks and balances against arbitrary arrest, detention, and other undue restrictions of the rights of individuals to the legitimate exercise of their freedom of expression and opinion".
Abuse of power
Amnesty International has also documented several instances of human rights abuses carried out by law enforcement officials and other state agencies against journalists and others at the behest of lawmakers, government officials or members of the ruling political party.
Members of the local government along with a security agency and the Department of Narcotics Control broke into Dhaka Tribune and Bangla Tribune journalist Ariful Islam's home on 14 March and dragged him out. He alleged that he was asked to say his last prayers as his captors were about to put him into an "encounter", a term popularly referred for extrajudicial execution.
They eventually took him to the office of the Kurigram deputy commissioner where he was stripped of his clothes, tortured and subsequently sentenced to one-year in jail on charges of possessing liquor and drugs by a mobile court set up in the dead of night.
Ariful Islam had earlier reported about irregularities committed by the office of the Kurigram deputy commissioner.
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