On public fronts, ministers delivered implicit and tactful statements to the public asking them to wrap up their banners and slogans and go home. Out of the public eye, hundreds of individuals were detained in police stations across the country or attacked by individuals allegedly from the ruling-party's student wing, while teachers were threatened to withdraw support from their students.
Now, anybody can be picked up for anything, because what constitutes as an offence under section 57 is a blurry zone.
To add fuel to fire, Facebook is strewn with 'wanted' posters of protestors who were active on Facebook. The posters urge the general public to provide the whereabouts of these people to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the police. Several sources inside the CID said that while they are not publicly circulating any such list, they have been collecting information from people about the Facebook activities of the general public. Their Facebook page says as much: “We too demand safer roads, but we appeal to citizens to help us by providing us with the Facebook posts and addresses of those who are spreading rumours and destabilising the society.”
However, Supreme Court lawyer Barrister Tanjib-ul-Alam, argues, “If the CID is collecting this information on their initiative, we need to ask whether a case was filed first? They can only conduct investigations after cases are filed. They can only investigate into these people once cases are filed by the police.”
Yet, certain citizens have definitely taken CID's call to heart. In a much-circulated Facebook video, a central committee member of the youth group opposing the protest claimed that they collected a list of 700 'post'-ers that they will “hand over to the ICT Ministry”.
Dhaka University Fazlul Haque Hall's BCL unit also did their part. Tariqul Islam of Mathematics, Mashiur Rahman Sadik of Information and Communication Technology and Zobaidul Haque Rony of Physics departments were beaten up and handed over to the police. “They started beating up Rony in the guest room from 2:30am till 6am. The door was locked, and I was outside in the balcony. I heard the noises. When he was dragged outside I saw that his mouth was bleeding. The police came and the administration handed him over,” an eyewitness claims.
“People are frustrated so they take to Facebook to express their opinions,” says Supreme Court lawyer, Jyotirmoy Barua, “The space for independent freedom of expression in this country is shrinking as it is. While we must fact-check what is being shared on Facebook, the use of social media is the sign of a healthy society.”
Crowd-sourcing such information seems to be reaping fruit. For example, on Tuesday night, while this correspondent was waiting at the Detective Branch's (DB) office in Minto Road, the distraught family of businessman M. Ahmed* rushed inside. “He was picked up from our Lalmatia house by the DB police around 8:30 pm, for writing in support of Shahidul Alam on Facebook,” claims his wife. A senior DB officer present on spot was overheard saying this to Ahmed's elderly mother: “It is not our job to teach your son what is right and what is wrong, but when your son 'likes' and 'shares' this and that on Facebook, we have to step in. Couldn't you teach your son the difference between right and wrong?”
Just out of curiousity, we went to his Facebook profile to verify what the police were talking about. M. Ahmed's profile is extremely tame compared to many of the supporters of the movement—he had shared a few news articles all relating to the arrest of Shahidul Alam and a few statuses authored by other people. He himself had authored no posts providing analysis of the movement or criticising the government's handling of it. Ahmed was released the next day after 17 hours of detention.
On the same night, three more by the name of Touhidul Islam Tushar, Mohammed Waliullah, and 18-year-old Mohammed Ihsanuddin Ifaz were arrested by cops for “writing inciteful things on social media”, as per a statement circulated by the police. Three nights earlier on August 8, 2018, three others were picked up from their homes and shown arrested, again, for “inciting the deterioration of law and order” which is a cyber crime. Ironically, one of those arrested runs a Facebook group for fighting graver cyber crimes like online sexual harassment—and now he is charged under the same law as the internet stalkers he fights.
When 37 students of Ahsanullah University of Science and Technology were detained in the Tejgaon Industrial Police Station on August 6—and then let go subsequently 19 hours later—it also gave them a strong warning, not to get involved in the movement again. This correspondent spoke to 15 of their families who all claimed that their children were picked up because they tried to join the protests.
Tonmoy*, an arrested male student, was asked whether he will go to the protests again. He has no straight answer. “Whatever we do will be useless if no one else comes forward. We can't do anything alone,” he says.
When Tonmoy and the 36 others were released, their university's registrar Mohammed Abdul Gaffar was called in. “I had to address the students and instruct them not to get involved in all this again. What can I do? It was my responsibility to get the students released,” he said to Star Weekend.
“The concept of treason has changed. Government and state are not interchangeable,” concludes Jyotirmoy Barua, “It is the citizen's constitutional right to criticise the government they elected—and that should not amount to treason.”
Names have been changed or abbreviated to protect their identities.