The arrests were criticized as being “based on vague charges such as ‘hurting religious sentiment’ or undermining ‘law and order’
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has condemned the arrests of poet Henry Sawpon, lawyer Imtiaz Mahmood, and Odhikar activist Abdul Kaium in cases filed under the ICT Act or its successor the Digital Security Act.
“Arresting activists, poets, and lawyers for exercising their right to free speech is straight out of the authoritarian playbook,” HRW Asia Director Brad Adams said in a statement published on the rights watchdog’s website on Friday.
“The Bangladesh government should stop locking up its critics and review the law to ensure it upholds international standards on the right to peaceful expression,” he added.
The arrests were criticized as being “based on vague charges such as ‘hurting religious sentiment’ or undermining ‘law and order’.”
The statement also criticized the Digital Security Act, calling it “more abusive” than its predecessor.
Although both Sawpon and Mahmood were granted bail on May 16, Kaium remains it detention, it added.
“The ICT Act was widely criticized for granting police wide-ranging powers to make arrests on broad and vaguely defined grounds for any electronically published content, effectively curbing lawful criticism and dissent,” the statement said.
It also cited that Muhammad Nazrul Islam Shamim, special public prosecutor of the Cyber Tribunal created under the ICT Act, acknowledged that some cases brought under section 57 had been “totally fabricated and … filed to harass people.”
According to the statement, Imtiaz Mahmood’s arrest is of particular concern because the ICT Act was revoked in October 2018 and replaced with the Digital Security Act, which the government claimed would end arbitrary arrests. “Instead, the new law tightened the government’s chokehold on free speech.”
Concluding the statement, HRW Asia Director Brad Adams said: “This week’s arrests show how small the space has become for civil society in Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina’s government should revise the abusive elements of these laws before the space for peaceful expression disappears entirely.”