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What’s Bangladesh’s digital security law?

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Activists march and shout slogans during a demonstration in Dhaka on Saturday following the death of writer Mushtaq Ahmed in jail months after his arrest under internet laws which critics say are used to muzzle dissent. AFP

What’s Bangladesh’s digital security law?

Bangladesh saw another day of protests on February 28 following the death of a prominent writer and government critic in jail, with police firing tear gas and rubber bullets.

Mushtaq Ahmed, 53, collapsed and died on February 25, 10 months after being arrested under Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act (DSA) for comments on Facebook criticising the government’s response to coronavirus.

AFP looks at the legislation, which has alarmed foreign governments and which rights groups say is being used to silence dissent in the country of 168 million people under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Bangladesh’s parliament passed the DSA in late 2018 after several major instances of deadly sectarian violence sparked by posts on social media, but the wording is vague and its provisions broad.

It criminalises engaging in “propaganda” against the “spirit” of the 1971 Bangladeshi war of independence, the national anthem, the flag and the nation’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, father of the current prime minister.

Those falling foul of the law face hefty fines and lengthy jail sentences, even life imprisonment for certain repeat offences. Arrests can be made without a warrant.

Hasina said on February 27: “We’ve built a digital Bangladesh, and now it is our duty to provide the people with digital security.”

How widely is it used?

Citing data from Bangladesh’s Cyber Crime Tribunal, Amnesty International says nearly 2,000 cases have been filed under the DSA, with journalists as particular targets.

Last year at least 10 editors of national and regional dailies and online news platforms faced legal charges under the DSA following critical reporting on leaders of the ruling Awami League party, according to Amnesty.

Others falling foul include people like Ahmed, a successful crocodile farmer who became a vociferous critic of the government. He was arrested in May along with several others including rights campaigner Didar Bhuiyan and Ahmed Kabir Kishore, a cartoonist.

According to rights group Article 19, which monitors press freedom in many countries, “freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of the media are being severely violated under the Digital Security Act”.

Rights groups say arrests have increased since the coronavirus pandemic.

Members of Bangladesh’s minority Hindu community have also been detained and jailed under the law for hurting the religious sentiments of majority Muslims.

In September, for example, a young Hindu man was jailed for seven years under the DSA for posting comments on Facebook found to have blasphemed the Prophet Mohammed.

What else has Hasina done?

Hasina, 73, has ruled the country with a firm hand since coming to power in 2009 in a landslide election victory.

She has used her power to settle some old scores, with several army officers accused of killing her father and much of her family in 1975 executed.

At least five Islamist leaders and a senior opposition leader have also been executed for war crimes. Rights groups raised questions about the fairness of the trial.

Hasina’s main political opposition has been hobbled, with thousands of its activists behind bars on what they say are trumped-up charges.

Her ailing arch-rival Khaleda Zia was jailed for corruption charges that the opposition says are politically motivated. Last March she was let out for medical treatment.

Hasina was easily re-elected in 2014 and 2018, and both votes were clouded by allegations of irregularities.

Earlier this year an Al Jazeera documentary alleged close links between Hasina’s inner circle, the military and organised crime. The government denied the claims and a court ordered the programme removed from the internet.

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