Some 113 cases have been filed under the Digital Security Act in the first six months of this year in Bangladesh, UK-based rights group Article 19 said yesterday.
A total of 208 people of different classes and professions have been accused in these cases due to "mere expression of opinion". Of them, 53 are journalists, the rights group said in a press statement.
Of the accused, 114 were arrested immediately, most of whom were still awaiting bail, after the cases were lodged, it said.
On the other hand, Article 19 recorded 71 cases in 2018 filed against practitioners of freedom of expression, including journalists, under the then section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology act and then newly enacted DSA which came into effect in October that year.
In 2019, the number of cases initiated under the DSA was 63, it added.
The rights body expressed grave concern over the "bizarrely filing of cases and arrests" under the DSA across the country for "merely manifesting views on social media".
Recently, the arrests included a ninth-grader boy, university teachers and students, writers, journalists, and cartoonist, it said, strongly condemning the arrests and calling on the authorities concerned to immediately release the arrestees and withdraw the cases unconditionally.
"The controversial act has further spotlighted the towering crisis in the government's capacity, efficiency, and management in tackling the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic following the arrests of ninth-grader boy, university teachers-students, writers, journalists, and cartoonist," said the rights group.
Faruq Faisel, regional director for Article 19, Bangladesh and South Asia, said, "There has been failure in the government's preparedness to control the transmission of coronavirus at the outset of the pandemic. Issues such as incoherence, opacity, and mismanagement in policy making stage to relief distribution at the local level have gradually been crystallised. We hoped that the government would focus on closing these loopholes. Unfortunately, now the policy of suppressing dissent and criticism seems to be on the top priority of the authority."
He said it is a shame for the democracy and human rights that a ninth-grade teenager has been prosecuted and arrested for criticising the government's decision on Facebook.
"The practice of free expression needs to be unimpeded in the cause of establishing a stable society and sustainable development. Despite repeated calls for enforcement of law in comply with the commitments, Bangladesh reiterated at the international platforms, such as the United Nations, the government is not taking effective steps to amend the controversial DSA,'' the regional director added.
He urged that prisoners be released on bail to prevent coronavirus infections in jail.
In the last 30 days, about 45,000 people accused in various cases were granted bail in the virtual courts, he said, adding that the defendants in the DSA cases are not accused of any heinous case like murder, rape, terrorism, militancy or treason.
"Yet their bail processes are constantly facing obstacles," he said.
Faruq observed that, "Law enforcement agencies have been particularly active in arresting defendants in cases under the DSA compared to cases filed under other time-tested existing laws. Recently, two university teachers in Rangpur and Rajshahi, one of whom was a female, were arrested at midnight immediately after the respective cases were filed.
"On the contrary, the accused in serious cases like attempted murder and corruption fled the country on well-arranged chartered flights; law enforcers could hardly find a clue of their whereabouts until they were in headlines. This discriminatory trend in enforcement of law has become a major threat to democracy and the rule of law.''