Bangladesh: Reveal whereabouts of disappeared journalist, end repression

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 today, as the human rights organization called on the government to promptly amend the draconian Digital Security Act in compliance with international human rights law.

Three journalists including a prominent newspaper editor have been accused of “deteriorating law and order” under the Act and one journalist has been brutally tortured this year for producing critical reports. Another journalist accused under the Act is feared to be a victim of enforced disappearance. More than 1,000 cases have been filed under the Act since it was put into implementation in October 2018.

“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.

Enforced disappearance

Police have denied any information about the whereabouts of journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol, 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.

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.

“No amount of consolation can heal the trauma and anxiety lived by the families of the victims of enforced disappearance, without knowledge about what happened to their loved ones. We urge the Bangladesh government to heed the appeals of the families, look at their suffering and urgently launch investigations to determine their whereabouts,” said Saad Hammadi.

Shrinking space for freedom of expression

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.

More than 1,000 cases have been filed under this Act since it was put into implementation in October 2018. The cybercrime tribunal has dismissed more than 200 cases for lacking sufficient evidence into the allegations.

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”.

“The dangerous effect of the Digital Security Act is not surprising. Since its inception, we expressed our concerns about how some of the provisions of the law could become potential instruments of repression and called for its repeal. We are only seeing the manifestation of it now,” said Saad Hammadi.

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.

In another incident, a Bangla daily newspaper, 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.

On 3 March, Secretary of the Muktagachha unit of the ruling Awami League party, Billal Hossain Sarker, sent his men to detain Emdadul Haque Milon after he expressed on Facebook critical views about the State invitation being extended to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to visit Bangladesh. He was then handed to the Officer-in-Charge of the local police, who took him into police custody on 3 March. The next day, Billal Hossain Sarker filed a case accusing him of “deteriorating law and order” by publishing “false, offensive and defamatory” information on Facebook.

 “Almost anyone critical of the government is under increasing risks in Bangladesh, being dragged from their homes, tortured and put in jail simply for expressing their views. The authorities must immediately put an end to this crackdown and ensure conditions where people feel safe to express themselves without fear of reprisals. When trust is eroded like this, no one can feel safe,” said Saad Hammadi.

Lawyer threatened

The Bangladeshi authorities have also failed to act in the case of a prominent lawyer who has received multiple death threats over recent months, including a letter warning him against filing cases against abuses of the paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion force and the police.

Barrister Abdul Halim said he received the death threat in a letter on 11 March. On the same day, he filed a “general diary” – a police complaint – but says he has received no assistance from the authorities since. The letter is the latest in a series of threats he has received this year.

“No one should be threatened for bringing forward allegations of human rights violations by the authorities. Barrister Abdul Halim should be given the protection that he needs, and the threats against him should be independently and effectively investigated,” said Saad Hammadi.