Where is Kajol? Bangladesh’s Suppression of Freedom of Expression Continues
Stephen Delahunty reports on a controversial law which critics believe is being used by the Bangladeshi Government to silence dissent
The son of a detained Bangladeshi journalist has called for his father’s release after he joined hundreds of people who have been arrested under the Government’s controversial Digital Security Act (DSA).
Shafiqul Islam Kajol, the editor of the Daily Pokkhokal, disappeared on 10 March this year after a defamation case was filed against him under the DSA by Usmin Ara Beli, a member of Bangladesh Jubo Mahila League’s Central Committee, at the Hazaribagh Police Station.
It would be 53 days before Kajol was seen again. He reappeared on 8 May, in police custody at a border town 150 miles from where he had last been seen. He now faces up to seven years in prison for criticising an alleged sex-trafficking ring run by an official in the ruling Awami League, for posting “false and defamatory” content on Facebook, and for trespassing into his own country.
On 23 June, another case was filed against Kajol by the ruling party law-maker Saifuzzaman Shikhor at the Sher-e-Bangla Nagar Police Station. An additional claim was also made against him with the Kamrangir Char Police Station under the same Act.
He is being held under Criminal Procedure Code Section 54, which critics say is a loophole to enable torture because it empowers police to arrest people without a warrant and detain them for up to 15 days without a lawyer. Kajol has already been detained far beyond the limits of this code under Bangladeshi law and international standards.
On 28 June, Kajol was again denied bail and placed on a two-day remand so that the authorities could reportedly “interrogate” him for information connected to one of three DSA cases against him. The investigating officer had sought a 10-day remand to quiz him to recover his Facebook account and arrest his accomplices.
In 2019, the civil rights group Article 19 documented 63 cases under the DSA. However, in the first six months of this year, 113 cases have been recorded of this kind.
A total of 208 people have been accused just for expressing their opinions, 53 of whom are journalists. Of the accused, 114 were arrested immediately and most are still awaiting bail. Critics warn that the DSA is being used to silence dissent.
Article 19 is one of many civil liberties groups calling on the Bangladeshi Government to review and reform the DSA, on the grounds that it undermines the right to freedom of speech, gives police the power to arrest journalists and confiscate their equipment without a court order, and carry out searches without a warrant. In addition, it allows authorities to ask service providers and other intermediaries for data without requiring a court-obtained warrant.
Bangladesh’s Government was re-elected with a landslide in December. According to the country’s Election Commission, the Awami League (AL)-led ruling coalition won 288 out of the 300 parliamentary seats. However, the opposition alleged massive vote rigging and rejected the results and called for new elections.
The opposition has grounds to be upset. For several years, the AL has engaged in a systematic campaign to undercut and dismantle any opposition altogether. The crackdown has included scores of arrests and several top figures, including the opposition leader Khaleda Zia, are in jail. Critics argue that the AL’s unrelenting campaign of political repression made any idea of a level electoral playing field a farce, while dissent from journalists and civil society continues to be stifled.
“Bangladesh authorities are flouting the rule of law, arbitrarily arresting anyone they feel might be criticising the Government and, in particular, the Prime Minister or her family,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told Byline Times. “At a time when the Government should be reducing the prison population to protect against the spread of COVID-19, they are locking people up simply for their comments on social media.”
Bangladesh’s Editors’ Council, an association of newspaper editors, had warned that the law is “against the freedom guaranteed by the constitution, media freedom and freedom of speech”.
Steve Butler, Asia programme coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, said that his organisation had documented dozens of journalists that are missing or have been killed in the country. “Journalists should never go to jail over defamation,” he added.
Kajol’s son, Monorom Polok, described his father’s disappearance and subsequent detention as surreal and said that he was becoming increasingly concerned for his father’s health in prison as he has a compromised immune system.
“I feel this oppression is bigger than all of us,” Polok told Byline Times as he described the fight to secure his father’s release from prison. “Since 2009, according to Odhikar (Bangladesh’s human rights monitor), 509 people have disappeared, meaning 509 families were looking and, many of them are still looking, for their loved ones. But not a single protest was mounted here in Bangladesh.”
Polok promised to keep fighting with integrity until his father’s release and thanked those looking to bring international attention to his father’s case. “I can tell you that, when my father will be back with dried blood under the skin on his back, we will bond over these publications and use them as antibiotics, at least to heal our mental trauma.”