Amnesty International on Monday asked the Bangladesh authorities to end its crackdown on the right to free expression online and urgently repeal the draconian Digital Security Act, unless it can be amended in compliance with international human rights law and standards.

In its new briefing titled “No space for dissent”, the global rights body examines cases under the country’s Digital Security Act, a law that contains overly broad and vague provisions granting the authorities extensive powers to police the online space.

The cases it scrutinises involve 10 individuals who have been subjected to a wide range of human rights violations, including enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture, simply for criticising powerful people on social media.

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

Allegations of torture

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 Act. One detained person 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,” said Saad Hammadi, Amnesty International’s South Asia Campaigner.

He added: “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 organisations. Bangladeshi authorities must release all prisoners held solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression.”

The Digital Security Act 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 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 legislation including the DSA in conformity with the ICCPR,” said Hammadi.

Tool for repression

Introduced in October 2018, the Digital Security Act 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 Digital Security Act. Several UN member states at Bangladesh’s Universal Periodic Review at the Human Rights Council recommended the government to amend the DSA “to ensure online 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 February 26, rights activist Ruhul Amin was arrested for a Facebook post criticising 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 had been 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 February 25, 2021.

“Mushtaq Ahmed should not have spent a single minute in prison, let alone his final ones,” said Hammadi. “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.”

Criminalising free speech

Amnesty International has found a concerning pattern in which the authorities are weaponising 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 Digital Security Act, has recorded 199 cases under trial between January 1 and May 6, 2021. Amnesty International has found 134 of those cases that clearly specified the sections under the Digital Security Act. Eighty percent of those cases (107 out of 134) were filed under both sections 25 and 29 of the Digital Security Act.

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

The way in which defamation is criminalised 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 called on the Bangladeshi authorities to ensure that defamation is treated as a matter for civil litigation, not criminal.

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.

Emdadul Haque Milon, a pharmacist and contractor, said that a local political leader of ruling Awami League party had him detained on March 3, 2020, under the Act 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, who is hailed as the “Father of the Nation” in Bangladesh.

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 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.

Cases dismissed

The Cyber Tribunal in Dhaka dismissed nearly 50% of the cases (97 out of 199) during the period under review for lacking merit and evidence. That, however, did not mitigate 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 weaponised the law to silence dissent,” said Hammadi.

Faisal Mahmud is a journalist in Dhaka.