BANGLADESH: Government Abuses COVID-19 Lockdown for Mass Arrests and Muzzling Freedoms

The Bangladesh Government continues its ruthless campaign of gagging freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly. In the spree of muzzling the people’s freedom of expression, hundreds have been arbitrarily detained under the Digital Security Act-2018, Anti-Terrorism Act-2009Special Powers Act-1974, Official Secrets Act-1923the Penal Code-1860, and other draconian laws under the incumbent Government of Sheikh Hasina.

Investigative Journalist Detained for Spying:

Rozina Islam, a senior reporter of the Prothom Alo (a largely circulated national daily), is the latest Journalist to face detention in Bangladesh, allegedly for her investigative journalism. She was, first, confined for five hours at the Ministry of Health located at the Bangladesh Secretariat – the bureaucratic headquarters of the country, on 17 May 2021. In the evening, Rozina was brought to the Shahbagh Police Station with the criminal case under Section 379 Punishment for theft and Section 411 Dishonestly receiving stolen property of the Penal Code-1860 and Section 3 Penalties for spying and Section 5 Wrongful communication, of information of the Official Secrets Act-1923

Dr. Md. Shibbir Ahmed Osmani, Deputy Secretary of the Health Services Division of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has filed the case against Rozina Islam with the Shahbagh Police Station of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) on late May 17, 2021. On 18 May, the Police produced Rozina before the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate (CMM) Court of Dhaka and sought her remand for five days. Magistrate Mohammad Jasim rejected the remand petition, ordered her detained in prison, and fixed 20 May for hearing the bail petition. Metropolitan Magistrate Baki Billah on 20 May heard the bail petition and decided to deliver the decision on 23 May after ‘examining the documents in relation to the case’. The Magistrate granted bail to Rozina on condition of BDT 5,000 surety and surrendering her passport to the Court. She has been released on the same day evening form Kashimapur Women’s Central Jail at Gazipur after her six days’ detention. The Detective Branch (DB) of the Police is assigned to investigate the case.

Rozina’s confinement and subsequent detention in the case has sparked protests online and off-line among the Bangladeshi public. It is mostly understood as retaliation for her journalist works that revealed scandalous corruptions of the Ministry of Health in handling the COVID-19 pandemic. Demands for Rozina’s release were growing since she was detained. Detaining an Investigative Journalist on a spying charge under a century-old Colonial Law indicates the brutal attitude of the Sheikh Hasina Government towards the freedom of press in Bangladesh.

Journalist Detained for Facebook Post Critical of Khulna City Mayor:

Abu Tayeb Munshi, a journalist of the National Television (NTV), Dainik Loksomaj and Khulna Gazette, was arrested at his residence at Nurnagar in Khulna City on 20 April 2021 under the Digital Security Act-2018. Abu Tayeb made a Facebook post about alleged corruption involving a private company owned by Talukdar Abdul Khalek, Mayor of Khulna City Corporation and President of the city unit of the Bangladesh Awami League (BAL) – the ruling party of the country. Abu Tayeb’s Facebook post was substantiated by official documents of Mongla Customs House Authorities where the Mayor’s name and signature was found in relation to evading custom duty. Acting Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, Sumi Ahmed, of the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate (CMM) Court of Khulna on 21 April 2021, ordered detaining Abu Tayeb in jail. On 22 April, Metropolitan Magistrate Tariqul Islam, and on 28 April, Metropolitan Sessions Judge Shahidul Islam rejected Abu Tayeb’s bail petitions. On 5 May, a High Court Bench granted him bail. Subsequently, on 12 May, Abu Tayeb was freed from jail. The case against the Journalist remains pending.

Pro-Opposition Newspaper Journalist Languishes in Jail:

Ruhul Amin Gazi, Chief Reporter of The Daily Sangram – a pro-opposition newspaper representing Bangladesh Jama’at-E-Islami (BJI) party, has been languishing in jail for more than seven months since he was detained on 21 October 2020. He is charged in a sedition case, which was originally filed under the Digital Security Act-2018 against the newspaper’s editor Abul Asad, who served an arbitrary detention from 13 December 2019 to 7 December 2020Muktijuddho Mancha – a pro-ruling party group physically assaulted Abul Asad, vandalised the newspaper office, and filed a case against him for publishing an article. It named Abdul Quader Mollah – a senior leader of the BJI party who faced the death penalty in a controversial trial, a ‘martyr’, which offends the narrative of the supporters of the incumbent government. Subsequently, the Police detained the Newspaper Editor who faced arbitrary detention for a year and the Chief reporter Ruhul Amin Gazi is still in jail for seven months. In contrast, the perpetrators who assaulted Abul Asad and vandalised the newspaper office are at large without any complaint for the crime they had committed.

A Panicked, Abducted Journalist Reappeared after Four Days.

Golam Sarwar – a journalist of Chottogram based Online News Portal, was abducted and remained disappeared for about 96 hours since the morning of 29 October 2020. He was found unconscious in a ditch at the Kumira Bazar under Sitakunda Upazilla of the Chottogram Port District. The local people called the Police after seeing Golam Sarwar. He was taken to the Chottogram Medical College Hospital for treatment. After regaining consciousness, Sarwar screamed in panic and repeatedly said, “I will not write news anymore!” Two reports are believed to have connections with the abduction and torture of Golam Sarwar.

A week before the abduction, on 23 October 2020, Sarwar wrote a report alleging that Anisuzzaman Chowdhury Ronny, brother of Minister for Land Saifuzzaman Chowdhury Javedgrabbed the land of a businessman in the port city. Following the report, the minister’s brother Anisuzzaman Chowdhury filed two defamation cases against Golam Sarwar and served Legal Notice.

Golam Sarwar, on 27 October 2020, published another report on gambling at illegal casinos in Chottogram port city involving a pro-ruling party politician’s son. On the morning of 29 October Sarwar was abducted and remained disappeared. His unconscious body was found at around 8:00 PM on 1 November 2020.

On 4 November, Sarwar registered a case with the Kotwali Police of Chottogram city against six unidentified people for abducting him. The investigation of the case made Sarwar more frustrated due to the negligence and insincerity of the Police. He expressed his frustration in a press conference at the Chottogram Press Club on 12 April 2021. He alleged that the Police Officers did not behave responsibly when he enquired about the progress of his case. The possibility of affording justice to journalist Golam Sarwar appears to be almost impossible in the given context of Bangladesh.

Journalists Attacked After being Terminated En Masse from Pro-Government Newspaper:

The Daily Janakantha – a pro-ruling party, national vernacular newspaper, terminated 26 journalists on 15 March 2021. The management of the Daily sent emails to the Journalists notifying them about the terminations of their jobs.

The sacked Journalists protested against the decision of mass termination. On 11 April 2021, the sacked reporters and leaders of the journalist bodies came to protest in front of the Globe-Janakantha Building. The protesters found the main gate locked to prevent them from entering the premises. They also reportedly locked the gate from outside and starting protesting on the street. A group of hoodlums from the newspaper management section attacked the protesting journalists. Ten journalists were injured in the physical attack from sticks, iron rods and bricks. No redress has yet been available for the affected and injured journalists since the incident.

Workers’ Leader Arbitrarily Detained in Digital Security Case:

Ruhul Amin, coordinator of Sramik-Krishak, Chhatra-Janata Oikya Parishad in Khulna, was picked up from persecuted cartoonist, Ahmed Kabir Kishore’s family house, at Goalkhali, Khalishpur, Khulna city, at 10:00 PM on 26 February 2021. Ruhul Amin criticized the Government on Facebook for the prolonged arbitrary detention of writer Mushtaq Ahmed. Mushtaq died in prison on the 297th day of his detention without bail. The following day the Police implicated Ruhul in a case filed under the Digital Security Act-2018. The Police accused him of ‘tarnishing the image of the State’, ‘defaming the Government’, and ‘spreading confusing information’ through Facebook. The Chief Metropolitan Magistrate (CMM) Court of Khulna placed him on a two-day Police remand. After the remand period Ruhul was detained in the Khulna Jail. His bail petitions were denied on March 1 and 14 at the CMM Court. On 19 April, the Metropolitan Session Court Judge Shahidul Islam granted bail to Ruhul Amin. After 51 days of arbitrary detention Ruhul was released from jail on the evening of the same day.

Mass Arrests of Anti-Modi Protesters:

Peaceful protests had erupted in Bangladesh, after the Government made India’s apartheid politician and incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi the chief guest, to celebrate the Golden Jubilee on 26 March 2021. The Government maintained its brutal characteristics by retaliating against the peaceful protesters. The Police, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), and the ruling party’s student wing Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) unleashed violence against the peaceful protestors. The BCL attacks left numerous protesters injured. The victims include ordinary students, workers, and leaders of pro-opposition entities. It included the Progressive Students’ Alliance, Bangladesh Chhatra Odhikar Parishad, Bangladesh Jubo Odhikar Parishad, and Hefazat-E-Islam – a close ally of the ruling party.

Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina Government launched mass arrests against the Anti-Modi protesters since the celebration of the golden jubilee of the country’s independence. Leaders and activists of the Bangladesh Chhatra Jubo and Sramik Odhikar Parishad (Student, Youth and Workers’ Council) and Hefajat-E-Islam, a recently defunct pro-ruling party organization, were made the prime targets for arbitrary arrests and detention in the aftermath of the Anti-Modi protests in the country. The Government slowed down internet speed and restricted Facebook, to curb communication and publication of the attacks on the protesters.

Student Leaders Arbitrarily Detained:

Among the student leaders, Akhter Hossen, president of the Dhaka University Unit of Bangladesh Chhatra Odhikar Parishad, secretary Akram Hossain, its former President Bin Yamin Mollah, and, at least 58 leaders were detained. The BSRC claimed that across the country 69 were charged in criminal cases until May 6, 2021. There were allegations of torture in custody against the detainees who were initially denied access to lawyers.

An Islamic Leader Dies in Custody as Dozens Face Arbitrary Detention:

Among the Islamic leaders, Hefajat-E-Islam’s Organizing Secretary Azizul Haque Islamabadi was abducted on 11 April 2021 from Chottogram. He remained disappeared for hours until the Detective Branch (DB) of the Police admitted his arrest following criticism in the social media. He was kept in Police remand for seven days in a case registered on 6 May 2013 in Dhaka. Mufti Harun Izhar, Education and Cultural Affairs Secretary of Hefajat-E-Islam, was arrested by the Rapid Action Battalion on 28 April. The organization’s immediate past Joint Secretary General, Maulana Iqbal Hossain DIED in prison custody on 20 May. The Rapid Action Battalion – RAB-11 arrested him on 11 April. The police took him in remand through the Court’s for three days in separate cases. He was allegedly tortured in custody that triggered a disorder resulting in his death in custody.

Exploitation of Lockdown to Contain COVID-19:

The Bangladesh Authorities are exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to curb the use of Civic Space. A country-wide lockdown was imposed since 14 April 2021 to contain the spread of the pandemic. The Government maintains South Asia’s poorest testing facilities coupled with a high undercount of infection and death. Its Vaccination Program had to be suspended due to the shortage of supplies from the Government’s preferred lone source. The country’s law-enforcement agencies, including the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and the Police, are apparently using the condition of lockdown to abduct, arbitrarily detain, and torture the targeted activists and leaders of the dissident entities.

The victims are systematically denied Access to Justice under the subjugated Judicial system in place. Affording justice to the victims of arbitrary detention, torture, and custodial death is absolutely impossible under the incumbent Government and the incompetent justice institutions. The situation will remain so until the restoration of a Democratic System takes place in Bangladesh leading to the transformation of the Criminal Justice Institutions.