Between 2009 and 2018, at least 507 people were subjected to enforced disappearances, according to the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights. Of them, 62 people were found dead, 286 returned alive, and the whereabouts of 159 are still unknown. In a recent press release, Amnesty International referred to these statistics and urged the Bangladesh government to immediately stop all attacks on those peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and urgently investigate these disappearances, which they believe are mainly targeting people who express their dissenting political opinions.
We are increasingly disturbed by and concerned about the rising number of these disappearances in Bangladesh, and the normalisation of this trend of people being "picked up", often without a warrant, and being detained without proper legal procedures being followed, or allowing them access to legal counsel. Added to that is the threat of the draconian Digital Security Act, which has already been used on numerous occasions to silence journalists, cartoonists, students, teachers and others with critical opinions expressed through social media posts.
The Constitution of Bangladesh guarantees that every citizen shall have the right to assemble and to participate in public meeting and processions peacefully, and that all citizens have the right to freedom of speech and expression. Why then, are we still seeing cases like the Barguna police's attack on a human chain organised to demand the release of Shahadul Islam Sefat, a graduate student of Stamford University, as detailed in the Amnesty press release? Why were 1,325 people arrested under the DSA in 2019—an average of three detentions per day? Why has DSA detentions crossed the 500 mark in the first half of 2020 alone?
The right to criticise and question the authorities, and the ability to express our views as citizens and argue our differences in opinions, are the cornerstones of a functional democracy. We urge the authorities to promptly investigate the occasions where the freedom of assembly and expression have been violated, and to ensure that voices of dissent are not being silenced due to the fear of reprisals.