The Perpetual Misery: The Plight of the Accused Under the Digital Security Act 2018 in Bangladesh

02 January 2024
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During a parliamentary session on 5 June 2023, Law Minister Anisul Huq disclosed that between 8 October 2018 and 31 January 2023, 7,001 cases had been filed under the Digital Security Act (DSA) 2018. Despite this revelation marking the first acknowledgment by the government of the total number of cases under the law, critical details, such as the number of accused individuals, arrests, trial outcomes, and convictions, were not provided. Originally intended to bolster citizens' digital security upon its inception in 2018, the DSA has faced widespread criticism and scrutiny. Academic studies, international and national human rights reports, as well as media freedom monitoring organizations, have exposed its rampant misuse by government authorities and ruling party supporters to curb dissent and muzzle critics.

The Centre for Governance Studies (CGS) hosted a webinar titled "The Perpetual Misery: The Plight of the Accused Under the Digital Security Act 2018 in Bangladesh," delving into the ramifications and experiences of individuals suffering by the Digital Security Act 2018. The event brought together experts, journalists, and victims of the act to scrutinize their experiences and deliberate on the contours of the newly adopted CSA 2023. 

The webinar was presided over by CGS Chairman Dr. Manjur Ahmed Chowdhury and was hosted by CGS Executive Director Zillur Rahman. The key speaker of the webinar was Dr. Ali Riaz, a Distinguished Professor at Illinois State University. The webinar included discussions by; Rumky Farhana, Senior Program Officer, Article 19 (Bangladesh and South Asia), Faruq Faisel, Executive Director, Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), Didarul Islam Bhuiyan, Economic Coordinator, State Reformation Movement, and Member of the DSA Victim Network, Rayhan Kabir, Advocate, Judge Court, Rangpur and Md Abdul Kaium, Human Rights Defender and Journalist and Manjur A. Chaudhury Journalists from various news outlets were present in the webinar and a Q&A session was held after the discussion. 

Dr. Ali Riaz in his keynote emphasized the horrors of the Digital Security Act (DSA) 2018 from the very beginning of the inception of the act. He gave the statistics and enlightened the discussant about the lengthy and ongoing misery of the DSA Victims. He said, “There needs to be an independent investigation of the cases.” He also brought up crucial points in his presentation that show how the changed name of the law continues to harass individuals with different opinions. He said only changing the name of the law would not end the misery of the victims as numerous cases under the DSA are ongoing even though the law itself has been reformed. He suggested that the victims who fell under the torture of DSA should be freed and get compensation from the government for their mental and financial suffering. 

Rumky Farhana highlighted the recurrent alterations in Bangladesh's security act preceding the national elections, indicating a pattern of consistent modifications. Emphasizing Article 19, which has been operational since the Act's inception, Farhana expressed grave concerns, stating, "A country's law is there to safeguard the citizens, but the DSA is doing the opposite of it." With the transformation of the Digital Security Act (DSA) into the Cyber Security Act (CSA), she advocated for the dismissal of cases filed under the DSA. She urged for justice to be served for the victims adversely affected by this legislation and called for legal action against those responsible for abusing its provisions.

Faruq Faisel highlighted the Digital Security Act's failure to prioritize citizen safety over political interests, stating, "Digital Security Act is providing safety to a political party when it should provide safety to the actual owner of the state, its citizens." He referenced Article 19's London office, which had provided an analysis to the law ministry in 2018, underscoring the DSA's contradiction with international agreements and treaties. He expressed concern over the government's lack of response to this analysis. He stressed the need for collaboration among various civil stakeholders to address this unjust law, aiming to promote good governance in Bangladesh. 

Didarul Islam Bhuiyan recounted a harrowing experience of forced disappearance and subsequent false charges levied against him. He detailed the disturbing sequence of events, narrating how he was abducted before any case was filed, and the charges were brought forth only after his arrest. The allegations against him revolved around accusations of conspiring against the government and sharing a poem on his Facebook profile. Bhuiyan's testimony underscored the clear orchestration of the case to stifle his voice and impede his efforts to expose governmental corruption by weaponizing the DSA.He highlighted the glaring contrast between the impunity enjoyed by criminals involved in murder and rape cases and the plight faced by human rights defenders under the Digital Security Act (DSA). He drew attention to the tragic demise of writer Mushtaq Ahmed, stating, "Mushtaq was not dead, he was killed." His account shed light on the injustices faced by individuals advocating for human rights and free expression, emphasizing the gravity of the situation where individuals are targeted and silenced for their dissenting voices in Bangladesh.

Raihan Kabir highlighted the Digital Security Act's underlying purpose, stating, "This law has been enacted to protect the dignity of MPs and powerful people." He expressed concern over how this legislation has contributed to diminishing public trust in Bangladesh's judicial system. He specifically focused on the provisions within articles 25 and 29 of the Act, which are theoretically bailable. However, in practice, victims of the cases filed under these articles often face challenges in obtaining bail. His remarks highlighted the disparity between the law's intent and its practical implications, shedding light on the systemic challenges within the judicial system and the detrimental impact of the Digital Security Act on public perception and trust in the legal framework of Bangladesh.

Md Abdul Kaium highlighted the Digital Security Act's biased application, asserting, "The Act grants bail only to those beneficial to the government, while those with strong dissenting opinions against the government become victims of the law. He underscored the disproportionate impact of the Act, stating, "Other laws of the country are negligible in front of this law." He revealed the ongoing nature of his case under the Digital Security Act, despite the law undergoing reform. His statement shed light on the selective and discriminatory nature of the Act's implementation, where individuals expressing dissenting views face legal repercussions, often finding themselves deprived of the legal protections and privileges granted to others. 

Dr. Manjur A. Chowdhury highlighted the adverse impact of both the Digital Security Act (DSA) and the Cyber Security Act (CSA), asserting that these laws have significantly curtailed freedom of expression. He emphasized that even deceased individuals have not been exempt from the reach of these acts. His metaphorical expression, stating, "We are boiled frogs in this situation and there is no salvation," painted a vivid picture of the gradual erosion of rights and freedoms in the current scenario. 

Zillur Rahman, in his concluding remarks, voiced apprehension regarding the current situation and forewarned of its potential worsening trajectory. He expressed deep concern over the prevailing circumstances, highlighting the paradox where criticizing politicians in the country seems to be more restricted than critiquing even higher authorities. He raised a pertinent question about the continuation of cases despite the reforms made to the act.