Bangladesh: End crackdown on freedom of expression online

Bangladeshi authorities must end the crackdown on people’s right to freedom of expression online and urgently repeal the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA) unless it can be amended in compliance with international human rights law and standards, Amnesty International said in a new briefing released today.

The briefing, “No space for dissent” examines cases under the DSA – a law that contains overbroad and vague provisions granting the authorities extensive powers to police the online space – against 10 individuals who have been subjected to a wide range of human rights violations including enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture, simply for criticising powerful people on social media.

Bangladesh has at least 433 people imprisoned under the DSA as of July 2021, most of whom are held on allegations of publishing false and offensive information online.

The actions taken by the authorities under the purview of the DSA demonstrate just how dangerous it has become to speak out and voice dissenting views in Bangladesh today

Saad Hammadi, Amnesty International’s South Asia Campaigner

Those targeted include journalists, cartoonists, musicians, activists, entrepreneurs, students and even a farmer who cannot read or write, among others. In one case, writer Mushtaq Ahmed died in prison after languishing there for 10 months without trial on accusations under the DSA. One inmate alleged that he was subjected to torture.

“The actions taken by the authorities under the purview of the DSA demonstrate just how dangerous it has become to speak out and voice dissenting views in Bangladesh today. These undue restrictions on different forms of expression have sent a chilling effect across Bangladeshi society and have severely curbed the space for independent media and civil society organizations. Bangladeshi authorities must release all prisoners held solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression,” said Saad Hammadi, Amnesty International’s South Asia Campaigner.

The DSA gives arbitrary powers to law enforcement agencies to conduct searches, seize devices and their contents, and arrest individuals without warrant simply for a comment they may have shared online, in violation of the right to freedom of expression enshrined under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Bangladesh is a party.

“We remind the Bangladeshi authorities about the recommendations they accepted from several UN member states during the country’s last Universal Periodic Review in May 2018, with regards to taking concrete measures to bring all legislations including the DSA in conformity with the ICCPR,” said Saad Hammadi.

Tool for repression

Introduced in October 2018, the DSA is increasingly being used to stifle dissent on social media, websites, and other digital platforms, with punishments that can extend to life imprisonment. The authorities have targeted critical voices under the pretext that they have made false, offensive, derogatory or defamatory statements online.

Even before its adoption, the UN Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression and on the situation of human rights defenders raised concerns over the draft of the DSA. Several UN member states at Bangladesh’s UPR recommended the government to amend the DSA “to ensure online freedom of expression”. The government, despite accepting these recommendations, has so far failed to follow through on its promise and continues to crackdown on people’s right to freedom of expression.

On 26 February 2021, rights activist Ruhul Amin was arrested for a Facebook post criticizing the Bangladeshi government and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for the death of Mushtaq Ahmed. He was subjected to intrusive questioning and imprisoned for 45 days before he was eventually released on bail.

Mushtaq Ahmed was arrested in May 2020 for criticising the Bangladeshi government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic on Facebook. Denied bail at least six times, he reportedly died of a heart attack in prison on 25 February 2021.

“Mushtaq Ahmed should not have spent a single minute in prison, let alone his final ones. Many provisions in the DSA are criminalizing conduct that should not constitute an offence in the first place. We urge the authorities to break away from this practice of using the law as a weapon against dissent,” said Saad Hammadi.

Criminalizing free speech

Amnesty International has found a concerning pattern in which the authorities are weaponizing sections 25 (Transmission, publication, etc. of offensive, false or threatening data information), 29 (Publication, transmission, etc. of defamatory information), and 31 (Offence and punishment for deteriorating law and order, etc) of the Act to target and harass critical voices.

The Cyber Tribunal based in Dhaka, which holds trials of cybercrimes including cases filed under the DSA, has recorded 199 cases under trial between 1 January and 6 May 2021. Amnesty International has found 134 of those cases that clearly specified the sections under the DSA. Eighty percent of those cases (or 107 out of 134) were filed under both sections 25 and 29 of the DSA.

The briefing finds that cases against six out of 10 individuals featured all three of these DSA sections, with sections 25 and 31 used against three other individuals.

The way in which defamation is criminalized under the Digital Security Act shows the serious shortcomings of a criminal approach to defamation, where the law has been further instrumentalised to silence dissent. Amnesty International calls on the Bangladeshi authorities to ensure that defamation is treated as a matter for civil litigation, not criminal.

Widespread abuse of DSA

Cases against eight out of 10 individuals featured in the briefing have been filed by lawmakers, members of ruling Awami League party or law enforcement officials.

Mushtaq Ahmed should not have spent a single minute in prison, let alone his final ones

Saad Hammadi, Amnesty International’s South Asia Campaigner

Emdadul Haque Milon, a pharmacist and contractor, said that a local political leader of ruling Awami League party had him detained on 3 March 2020 under the DSA for a Facebook post where he criticised the Bangladeshi government’s invitation to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the birth centenary of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the de facto or first president of Bangladesh. Emdadul Haque Milon alleged that the politician had him detained to stop him from submitting a proposal for a government contract that subsequently went to the politician’s son-in-law. He was eventually released on bail after 23 days.

A law enforcement official told Amnesty International that it is their responsibility to contain criticism against the government. Yet, international human rights law is clear that criticism of the authorities can never be legitimately punished.

The Cyber Tribunal in Dhaka has dismissed nearly 50 percent of the cases (or 97 out of 199) during the period under review for lacking merit and evidence. That, however, did not waive the human rights violations that people have suffered including facing detention for various periods even before the cases appeared for trial.

“The volume of DSA cases turned down by the tribunal demonstrates the way in which powerful people in Bangladesh have weaponized the law to silence dissent. The UN member states that expressed concern over the right to freedom of expression during Bangladesh’s UPR must continue to raise concerns about the ongoing violations being committed under the DSA and work with the authorities at implementing their recommendations to ensure critical voices are no longer silenced,” said Saad Hammadi.