Bangladesh authorities must immediately release human rights defender Mohammad Abdul Kaium, who has been allegedly tortured in custody during his arbitrary detention. The fabricated case filed against him under the Digital Security Act (DSA)-2018 and other penal laws should be dropped immediately.
The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has verified information that Mohammad Abdul Kaium, a human rights defender (HRD) associated with Odhikar, an independent rights organisation working on key issues of civil and political rights, is facing state-orchestrated persecution from the Sheikh Hasina regime in Bangladesh.
Kaium edits online news portal www.mymensinghlive.com and is a journalist with www.bdpress24.com. He is also a web developer. In 2018, Kaium signed an agreement to provide web-development service for Idris Ali Khan, a close relative of a Member of Parliament of the ruling party, whom Kaium had criticised in the past. The agreement was worth BDT 120,000 (USD 1,394).
On 11 May 2019, Idris Khan summoned Abdul Kaium to his office to receive his payment. Upon Kaium’s arrival Idris Khan offered USD 200, significantly lower than the agreed amount. Kaium refused to take the lower payment. As he left Idris Khan’s office in Kristopur, Mymensingh district town – an area which is under the Kotwoali police station’s jurisdiction – two plain-clothed officers of the Detective Branch (DB) Police arrested him. The police officers also seized a cell phone from Kaium.
The DB police ordered Abdul Kaium to give them ‘the USD 200′ and searched him. Failing to find the money, the police tortured him and ordered Kaium to confess that he extorted money from Idris Khan. While he was in detention, a team of plain-clothes detectives raided Kaium’s house in the Bhatiashor area of Mymensing town without a search warrant. The police seized the files and other items, including the signed web development agreement between Kaium’s company and Idris Khan, as well as the key to Kaium’s room. However, the police have not yet submitted a list of seized items to the court.
Kaium has told AHRC’s Human Rights Fact-Finding Team that on the evening of 11 May, from his cell, he overheard Idris Khan bribing the police officers to torture him. Kaium also saw from his cell DB police Sub Inspector (SI) Akram placing money in the drawer of his office desk.
Later the same evening, DB Officer-in-Charge (OC) Shah Kamal, SI Akram, SI Monju, SI Jewel and SI Porimol ordered Kaium to confess to receiving US dollars from Idris Khan. Kaium refused, and asked the police officers why he was being kept in detention without a court appearance. Kaium reports that the DB officers became angry and threatened to kill him under the pretext of ‘crossfire’ unless he provided a confessional statement on his alleged involvement in an illegal currency-exchange business. As Kaium continued to refuse, he was subjected to a prolonged physical attack by all officers present, including being slapped, punched, hit with his belt and struck with a wooden chair. The police also seized Kaium’s National Identity Card and forced him to divulge the passwords of his social media and email accounts, and the login details of his online news portal.
On 12 May, a case was brought against Kaium by police in response to a complaint filed with Trishal Police Station by Idris Ali Khan on the same day.
It includes the following charges under the repressive Digital Security Act of 2018:
• Section 23 – digital or electronic fraud; punishable by five years’ imprisonment and a BDT 500,000 (USD 5,809) fine; or seven years’ imprisonment and BDT 1 million (USD 11,619) fine;
• Section 25 – publishing, sending of offensive, false or fear inducing data-information punishable by imprisonment of three to five years and a BDT 300,000 to one million fine;
• Section 29 – publishing, broadcasting, etc., defamatory information, punishable by imprisonment of three to five years and a BDT 500,000 to 1 million fine.
The police also accused Kaium of offences under the Penal Code of 1860:
• Sections 385 – putting a person in fear of injury in order to commit extortion punishable by five to 14 years’ imprisonment with fines; and,
• Section 386 – extortion by putting a person in fear of death or grievous hurt, punishable by 10 years’ imprisonment with fine.
On 13 May, Kaium was brought before the Chief Judicial Magistrate’s Court in Mymensingh. The police requested he remain in police remand for five days while Kaium’s lawyer sought bail. On 14 May, the Magistrate rejected both petitions for remand and bail and ordered that Kaium be detained in prison. On 23 May, the Sessions Judge’s Court rejected Kaium’s bail petition.
The factual information in relation to Kaium’s detention establishes that the police illegally arrested and detained him a day before the case was fabricated against him. Although according to the First Information Report the alleged incident occurred in the jurisdiction of the Kotowali police, the complaint was registered in a different jurisdiction. The police arbitrarily detained Kaium for over 36 hours following his arrest in violation of Article 33 (2) of the Constitution of Bangladesh and Section 61 of the Code of Criminal Procedure-1898.
The Court failed to protect Kaium’s right to liberty and also ignored the fact that the police officers tortured Kaium in custody. It indicates that the Court’s complicity in maintaining the culture of impunity in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh authorities must halt the practice of fabricating cases against independent human rights defenders and journalists.