Bangladeshi authorities have arrested several high-profile figures in a new wave of attacks on free speech, according to Human Rights Watch. These include human rights activist Abdul Kaium, lawyer Imtiaz Mahmood and Catholic poet Henry Sawpon.
Most of those arrested were charged under one of Bangladesh’s two highly restrictive internet regulations: the Information Communication and Technology (ICT) Act 2006 and the Digital Security Act (DSA) 2018. The ICT Act grants police the ability to detain anyone who has posted something online that could be interpreted as politically incisive, defamatory, slanderous or offensive on religious grounds. In practice, the law has been used to curb criticism of institutional power.
When the ICT Act was originally introduced in 2006, there were relatively few arrests as a result of online content against the state. However, the law was amended in October 2013 to eliminate the need for arrest warrants and increase the prison terms for those convicted. This led to a wave of arrests over the past six years for crimes as nebulous as “betrayal to the country” or being an “opposition supporter”. People have been arrested for crimes as small as liking and sharing cartoons of the Prime Minister on Facebook.
The DSA was first introduced as a reform to the ICT Act to end the arbitrary arrests which had become commonplace in the twelve years since its introduction. However, the new law simply rephrased the broad grounds on which police could arrest social media users and tightened restrictions. “Propaganda or campaign against the liberation war […] the father of the nation, national anthem, or national flag” is now punishable by life in prison.
Henry Sawpon and Imtiaz Mahmood have been released on bail after a protest in Dhaka by writers, artists and journalists agitating for their release. However, Abdul Kaium remains in jail for now despite an application from his lawyer for bail and a request from the police for his remand. No date has been issued for his trial.