(New York) – Bangladesh authorities made a series of new arrests in their crackdown on the right to free speech, Human Rights Watch said today. The arrests were based on vague charges such as “hurting religious sentiment” or undermining “law and order.”
Those arrested include Abdul Kaium, a human rights activist; Henry Sawpon, a well-known poet; and Imtiaz Mahmood, a lawyer. All three were detained and charged under section 57 of the draconian Information Communication and Technology (ICT) Act or its more abusive successor, the Digital Security Act 2018.
“Arresting activists, poets, and lawyers for exercising their right to free speech is straight out of the authoritarian playbook,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The Bangladesh government should stop locking up its critics and review the law to ensure it upholds international standards on the right to peaceful expression.”
A group of writers, artists, and journalists staged a protest in Dhaka’s Shahbagh square on May 15, saying they would go on an indefinite strike beginning on May 17 if Sawpon and Mahmood were not released. Both Sawpon and Mahmood were granted bail on May 16; Kaium remains in detention.
The ICT Act was widely criticized for granting police wide-ranging powers to make arrests on broad and vaguely defined grounds for any electronically published content, effectively curbing lawful criticism and dissent.
Section 57 of the ICT Act authorized the police to arrest anyone without warrant for online content that could be interpreted as defamatory; could cause “deterioration in law and order;” prejudices the image of the state or a person; or “may cause hurt to religious belief.”
It has been used to arrest people for actions as trivial as “liking” a comment on Facebook. In September 2017, Muhammad Nazrul Islam Shamim, special public prosecutor of the Cyber Tribunal created under the ICT Act, acknowledged that some cases brought under section 57 had been “totally fabricated and … filed to harass people.”
Mahmood was arrested at his home in Dhaka on May 15, 2019, on charges that police had filed in July 2017 under the ICT Act over a Facebook post about violence in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts titled “Hill Bengali residents and law enforcers.”
There have been serious allegations of human rights violations by the military deployed in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in southeastern Bangladesh, where much of the country’s indigenous population lives. But Shafiqul Islam, a trader, filed the case against Mahmood under the ICT Act accusing him of spreading rumors with an “ill motive to tarnish the country’s image,” hurting “religious sentiment,” and “deteriorating the law and order.”
The high court granted Mahmood conditional release (anticipatory bail), meaning he was granted bail without arrest, on July 25, 2017. But without explanation, the Khagrachari court, in the Chittagong area, had issued an arrest warrant against him under the 2017 case on January 21.
Mahmood’s arrest is of particular concern because the ICT Act was revoked in October 2018 and replaced with the Digital Security Act, which the government claimed would end arbitrary arrests. Instead, the new law tightened the government’s chokehold on free speech. Under the new law, “propaganda or campaign against the liberation war, the spirit of the liberation war, the father of the nation, national anthem, or national flag” is punishable with life in prison. The Bangladesh’s Editors’ Council, an association of newspaper editors, has said that the law effectively prohibits investigative journalism.
Kaium, an activist with the prominent human rights organization Odhikar, and editor of news portal Mymensinghlive, was arrested on May 12 and denied bail on May 13. Idris Ali, an influential madrassah teacher, filed a case, accusing Kaium of extortion under the penal code and dissemination of “false or fear inducing information/data” (section 25) and defamation (section 29) under the Digital Security Act.
Odhikar had previously faced threats and intimidation from the government under the ICT Act. In September 2013, its founder, Adilur Rahman Khan, and director, A.S.M Nasiruddin Elan, were charged with “publishing false images and information” and “disrupting the law and order situation of the country.” In January 2017, the High Court of Bangladesh rejected a petition to quash the charges.
Sawpon was arrested at his home in Barisal on May 14 under the Digital Security Act. Sawpon is accused of “hurting religious values or sentiments” (section 28), defamation (section 29), and “causing deterioration of law and order” (section 31).
The case was filed with the police by a priest of a local Catholic church over Sawpon’s Facebook posts criticizing a church event the day after Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday attack. In the offending post Sawpon wrote that it was “very unfortunate” that Bishop Lawrence Subrata Howlander had arranged a cultural program in the wake of the attack and that “Bishop Subrata was playing the flute when Rome was burning.”
Sawpon could face up to 15 years in prison. Two others, Alfred Sarkar, 52, and Jewel Sarkar, 40, were also accused in the case just for commenting on the Facebook post.
“This week’s arrests show how small the space has become for civil society in Bangladesh,” Adams said. “Sheikh Hasina’s government should revise the abusive elements of these laws before the space for peaceful expression disappears entirely.”