BANGLADESH: Surge of Arbitrary Detention under Digital Security Act Leads to Deepening Crisis

It is well-known that systemic abuse of draconian Laws is an established practice in Bangladesh. The incumbent Government has weaponised a number laws, including the Digital Security Act-2018, to intensify its campaign of curbing freedom of expression and opinion.

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has compiled publicly available information obtained from the mainstream media. The data shows that the Police have detained at least 94 people under the Digital Security Act between January and June of 2020. One half of them, 47 people, were detained in the last three months – from April to June – during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Publicly available information suggests that the detainees criticised the Government. 
They used social media platforms citing the incumbent regime’s visible failure to manage the pandemic and scandalous corruptions by people associated with the ruling party the Bangladesh Awami League. The arrests and detentions are also related to criticisms of the alleged double standards of the Government. The ordinary patients having COVID-19 infections and symptoms are largely being denied their right to healthcare. In contrast we see: high profile political leaders provided with air-ambulances. Powerful bureaucrats privileged to receive treatment at the Combined Military Hospital (CMH), established exclusively for Bangladesh military personnel.

The detainees involve people from different professions such as college and university teachers including at least two female teachers. All the teachers have been temporarily suspended from their jobs. The arrest spree was not limited to adults. Police arrested a 15-year-old boy for a Facebook post, criticising the Government’s handling of the pandemic. Journalistscartoonistsand online activists have been facing criminal cases and arbitrary detentions under the Digital Security Act as well.

The pattern suggests that people associated with the ruling party and its various political wings have emerged as complainants, to register cases against the detainees by monitoring the social media. This has been happening due to an alleged nexus between the State and the Non-State actors in Bangladesh. Vague terms such as ‘defaming’ and ‘hurting public sentiment’ have been frequently used in the cases registered under this repressive cyber security law.

Human Rights Defenders (HRDs), claiming anonymity, shared with the AHRC the following information. Law-Enforcement Agencies and ruling-party, affiliate activists, complement each other, to identify the social media based critics of the Government. Cases are filed under the Digital Security Act and other Laws like the Special Powers Act-1974 and Section 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure-1898. The Non-State Actors, the Police and the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) are allegedly complementing each other in registering such cases that muzzle freedom of expression in Bangladesh.

Detainees accused in the Digital Security Act languish in prison for prolonged periods. Credible criminal investigation into the cases is also absent. Actually, it is impossible, given the present Policing System, because the Law-Enforcement Agencies act as Government henchmen. The Judiciary has been conventionally playing an active role in prolonging the detention of the detainees. They do this, by rejecting bail petitions or by refusing to hear those detainees appeals, who criticise the incumbent regime.

By abusing the State’s apparatus, the Government of Bangladesh has, in fact, contributed to making things more complex for itself. The regime’s amendment of foreign borrowing conditions for costly loans, indicate an almost bankrupt economy. During the pandemic, the country’s economic productivity leading to the export of ready-made garments and remittances from migrant workers as the key sources of foreign income, are facing setbacks. Countries like JapanItaly, and China have temporarily suspended flights from Bangladesh due to their scandalous testing rate and fake certification of COVID-19 infections. At a time of such unique crisis, the need of activating all avenues of potential resources is being considered by most nations of the world. In contrast, the Bangladesh Government is breaking its own backbone by defending corruption by unleashing repression against dissenting voices. The ongoing repressive actions may lead to increased poverty, which is growing larger by the day in the country. The Bangladesh Government reminds the world once again of this reality. Renewing power without the people’s mandate excludes public accountability. It can only offer misleading country’s fate involving people’s lives, healthcare, economic activity, and civil liberties.