Bangladeshi citizens strangled by digital security law
The smart young woman on the other side of the peephole called me “Uncle Shahidul”. Ours is sort of an open house, with my partner Rahnuma’s students, my students and our fellow activists arriving and departing at all hours. As beefy men rushed inside when I opened the door, I realized what was going on. My immediate strategy was to delay my abduction and make as much noise as possible. This strategy is probably what saved my life.
I had been taken away blindfolded and in handcuffs. If my family and friends, alerted by my cries, had not immediately taken action, informing the local and international media and organizing a vigil outside the place where I was tortured, I would have well may have ended up like the many others who ‘disappeared’ and ‘shot at each other’ in Bangladesh on a regular basis.
Civil society had campaigned for reforms to the 2006 Law on Information and Communication Technologies (ICT Law), under which I was arrested. But while I was in prison, rather than reforming the ICT law, they replaced it with the even more draconian Digital Security Act (DSA) of 2018.
Surprisingly, those who imply that the Prime Minister of Bangladesh is “a woman who according to the customs and mores of the country should not be compelled to appear in public, or when that person is under 18 or is an idiot or lunatic. , or comes from an illness or infirmity ” – are mostly ruling party politicians looking to win the favor of their leader. Section 29 of the DSA, governed by the Bangladesh Criminal Procedure Code, states that “no court can hear an offense unless the complaint is brought by the defamed person” except in such cases. .
Overzealous party supporters have filed numerous defamation cases on behalf of the prime minister and have benefited from such acts of allegiance. The courts played ball and the defendants were quickly jailed, sometimes tortured. Many have spent months in jail, with no charges ever being made. Some have lost their lives.
Party supporters were quick to file defamation complaints against each other, with the DSA being the weapon of choice. Those arrested include Mohammad Emon, a 14-year-old high school student, accused of sharing a post on Facebook; Abu Zaman, a farmer who cannot read or write, let alone use the Internet, accused of defaming on Facebook; and writer Mushtaq Ahmed, who died in prison after being held for more than 10 months without trial. Cartoonist Kabir Kishore Ahmed, who like Mushtaq had been denied bail six times, was released on bail a week after Mushtaq’s death. He is currently being treated for what he says are torture-related injuries. Kishore claims that Mushtaq suffered electric shocks to his genitals. Mushtaq’s father died months after he buried his son.
Denial is the government’s default response. Next comes a slew of unrelated new cases that keep the accused and his defense team busy, while the government comes up with other diversionary tactics. Photojournalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol is said to have learned of a sex scandal involving members of the ruling party. He disappeared’. The government has publicly denied any knowledge of his plight. It was “discovered” 53 days later, 100 meters from the Indian border, where many missing people regularly “reappear”. He was kept in pre-trial detention for seven months. His bond was refused at least 13 times before it was granted.
It was presented as a law enacted to protect the people. But rather than protecting people in imminent danger with the arrest resulting in the protection of the population, almost all cases concerned the protection of ruling party politicians or their relatives. Journalists have been arrested for covering government corruption. Cartoonists arrested for pointing out the link between corrupt businessmen and lawmakers. Businessmen arrested for commenting on unpopular state guests. A student arrested for sharing a popular post questioning the prime minister’s motives. Sufi singer arrested for deviating from religious dogma. Union leader arrested for campaigning for workers’ rights.
Laws must be precise and specific. The DSA is quite the opposite. A vague catch-all law, open to all kinds of interpretation, gives police virtually unlimited powers to arrest warrantless people suspected of intending to commit a crime. No proof needed.
There is a motive behind assuming that the police have telepathic powers. A person can be jailed for a totally unfounded case. The accused will be imprisoned for several months, putting them out of circulation. It’s the perfect strategy before an election, signing a business contract, or making a crucial deal. This is how the DSA was militarized.
Criminalizing what would normally be a civil offense allows the law to be used to trick people into accepting an offer “they cannot refuse”. The criminalization of legitimate forms of expression goes against the basic principles of Bangladesh’s constitution and the recommendations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bangladesh is a party. It goes against the fundamental aspirations of the liberation war and the Father of the Nation directives that the DSA claims to protect.
Freedom is the oxygen that democracy breathes. A police force turned into a private army, a judicial approval system, a rent-seeking bureaucracy and a pet election commission predict a death by strangulation. An openly rigged election is the last nail in the coffin. A nation born of genocide and rape camps, of poets, thinkers and farmers who have become freedom fighters. Brave women and men who fought and died for the love of a free nation, surely deserve better.
I hope that the DSA is not applied to party members for their slander on the Prime Minister.
Shahidul Alam is a Bangladeshi photojournalist, teacher and social activist.