By Stephan Uttom and Rock Ronald Rozario
Rights groups and church officials have joined growing calls to end a government crackdown on peaceful dissent and release people arrested under a repressive law in Bangladesh.
In recent weeks, police have arrested dozens of students, activists and journalists for their alleged part in recent student demonstrations calling for road safety and reform of the government’s job quota system.
Both protests came under brutal attack from police and supporters of the ruling Awami League of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Among those arrested was Shahidul Alam, an internationally acclaimed photographer and social activist. Alam, 63, was arrested and jailed on Aug. 4 for his support of the road safety protest and his interview with broadcaster Al Jazeera criticizing the government’s mishandling of the issue.
Most arrests were made under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, which stipulates stringent punishment for anyone who publishes, in electronic form, material that is fake and obscene; defamatory; tends to deprave and corrupt its audience; causes or may cause deterioration in law and order; prejudices the image of the state or a person; or causes or may cause hurt to religious belief.
This controversial law has been used for years to stifle dissent and government critics, triggering a barrage of criticism at home and abroad.
Social media accounts have come under strict surveillance for allegedly spreading “rumors” regarding the protests.
The crackdown has triggered an atmosphere of fear and put a chill on free speech in Bangladesh, New York-based Human Rights Watch said on Aug. 15.
“Sheikh Hasina’s government appears unable to tolerate criticism after Awami League supporters attacked protesters with machetes, sticks and metal pipes and is apparently desperate to shut down dissent,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“The authorities should halt arbitrary arrests, prosecute those involved in violent attacks, and immediately and unconditionally release people it has thrown in jail just for speaking out.”
Father Anthony Sen, a member of the Catholic bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission, decried the crackdown.
“The government alleged those arrested are infiltrators from opposition parties, but it has failed to prove it. The detention and harassment of a renowned personality like Shahidul Alam is an example of how the government intends to spread fear among media and activists,” he told ucanews.com.
“It is saddening and ironic that we live in a democratic country but the government wants to dictate what we should or should not say or do.”
A Catholic rights activist said that without repelling Section 57 of the ICT Act, there would be no respite from attacks on free speech.
“Section 57 has created a reign of terror and every sane citizen has reasons to fear for their safety if he or she says or does anything that might be unappetizing for the government. This law must go as it is a serious threat to our democratic right to freedom of expression,” said the activist, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions.
Mahmudul Hasan, secretary of Dhaka University Journalists’ Association, said the government had created an uneasy atmosphere that sparked the spreading of rumors and fake news.
“When you restrict free speech and demonstrations, people resort to anything including rumors to fight back. The government needs to realize that by muzzling free speech the situation will only get worse and democracy will stumble,” he said.