Suspects in cyber crime cases filed under the controversial Section 57 are facing an uncertain fate once the Digital Security Act becomes law in August this year.
For those under suspicion but who have not yet been charged with any offense, the uncertainty could be the difference between a jail term of 24 months or 14 years.
Law Minister Anisul Huq has repeatedly said Section 57 will not stay, claiming: “There is no scope for confusion.”
“Cases will be filed under Section 57 as long as it exists. New cases will be filed under the new law,” he said.
But one legal expert is warning of “chaos” in the criminal justice system if the government cannot provide more clarity on what will replace Section 57 after the existing Information and Communication Technology Act is abolished.
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“If there is no clear guideline from the government, the trial would be under the ICT act if the law still existed on the day of occurrence of the crime,” said Advocate M Asaduzzaman of the High Court, adding that there is “no way” to put cases filed under this law under a new law.
“Trials of cases where charges have been filed would continue. Investigation into the cases will also continue. If the new law is being used to try cases filed under the old act, it would create chaos.”
However, public prosecutors say that once the Digital Security Act is enacted, only the cases in which charges have been already been pressed will continue under the old ICT Act.
“Cases where the charge sheet is still pending would be investigated under different sections of the new Digital Security Act,” Public Prosecutor Nazrul Islam Shamim said, adding that the trials in around 400 cases have already begun.
Section 57 of the existing law concerns any post, image, or video on an electronic format that “causes a deterioration in law and order, prejudices the image of the state or person or hurts religious beliefs”.
The proliferation of such content is a non-bailable offence punishable by seven to 14 years in prison, and a fine of up to Tk1 crore.
Also Read- Why are Section 19 and Section 57 the same?
According to statistics provided by prosecutors of the Cyber Security Tribunal, around 740 cases have been filed across the country under the ICT Act in the last four years, with 60% of them lodged under the controversial Section 57.
The increasing number of Section 57 cases has raised concerns that it is being misused to harass people. There were only three such cases filed in 2013, but this number has increased exponentially each year since with a record 319 already filed for 2017.
Numerous journalists, students and teachers have been imprisoned under Section 57, which has been called “draconian” for its interpretation and implementation by law enforcement agencies.
“The issue is not whether Section 57 is staying or if it is being accommodated as section 19 of the new law,” said journalist Probir Sikder, who is himself facing a case under the act. “My view is that no interference should be made on the freedom of expression of the people. The law is being used to harass people.”
In May, the law minister said the new Digital Security Act will clarify what section 57 of the old law is supposed to represent.
“It will for once and for all prove that our government has no intentions to clamp down on freedom of speech,” he said.
Even though Section 44 of the draft Digital Security Act will abolish Section 57 of the ICT Act, the controversial contents of the existing section have been reworded as Section 19 of the draft law.
The reworded section, however, proposes a reduction in punishments to two months to two years in jail and a maximum of Tk2 lakh in fines.
This story was first published on the Bangla Tribune