Photojournalist Shahidul Alam still in jail and a hundred charged, a month after student protests

Bangladesh was added to the CIVICUS Monitor Watchlist in mid-August 2018 due to the deterioration in the human rights situation there over the last few months. The authorities have continued to use repressive laws to target its critics, restrict freedom of assembly and carry out enforced disappearances. Members of the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), the student wing of the ruling party Bangladesh Awami League (BAL), have attacked student activists, academics and journalists with impunity. Scores of activists and government critics have been detained around the recent protests and some are facing charges under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act, which has been systematically used to silence dissent. Further, civil society groups, including the media, continue to face pressure from both state and non-state actors.

Peaceful Assembly

Excessive use of force by police

On 4th August 2018, police used excessive force, including firing rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse peaceful demonstrations in Dhaka which were triggered by the killing of two teenagers by a speeding bus on 29th July 2018. According to reports, more than a hundred protesters were injured during the protest. Bangladeshi authorities also reportedly shut down mobile internet access across swathes of the country on 5th August as security forces tried to quell protests.

Some of the student protesters were also allegedly attacked by members of the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) and Jubo League, the student and youth wing of the ruling Bangladesh Awami League (BAL) party.

Omar Waraich, Amnesty International’s Deputy South Asia Director said:

“The Bangladeshi government must end the crackdown on the student protestors and people speaking out against it. The students have a right to peaceful assembly and physical security. These rights should be respected and protected, and there should be an immediate and effective investigation into the use of force by police, the violent actions of pro-government vigilantes who also attacked the students, and why the police did nothing to stop them.”
Media workers attacked at protest

At least 23 media workers, who were covering the protests, were attacked, beaten, assaulted, their cameras smashed, and vehicles vandalised. This includes ten journalists from different media outlets who were beaten brutally in Dhaka’s Science Lab area, allegedly by the BCL, armed with sharp weapons and rods, many wearing motorcycle helmets. Prothom Alo journalist Ahmed Deepto, who was not far away, was surrounded by 15-20 men and beaten. A female reporter was threatened and physically assaulted by a mob of alleged BCL members, even after agreeing to delete footage she had recorded of them.

On 7th August 2018, representatives of various journalist organisations held a demonstration outside the National Press Club demanding the immediate arrest of the perpetrators who attacked the media workers. Speaking at the demonstration, National Press Club General Secretary Farida Yasmin said:

“We condemn the attack of journalists and implore the government to take measures for preventing such incidents from happening in the future.”
Arrests around the protests

Between 29th July to 15th August 2018 around a hundred individuals, mainly students were charged. This includes both activists involved in the road safety campaign as well students who were also protesting the civil service quota system, which reserves 30 percent of government jobs for children of freedom fighters from Bangladesh’s Liberation War in 1971. According to the Dhaka Metropolitan Police at least 81 people were arrested under different sections of the Penal Code and Special Powers Act while the rest 16 others were arrested under Section 57 of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, which has been frequently used to bring charges against critics, activists and other dissenting voices. Section 57 deals with defamation, hurting religious sentiments, causing deterioration of law and order and instigation against any person or organisation through publishing or transmitting any material on a website or in electronic form. Some of those detained were allegedly tortured or ill-treated in custody. At least 74 students were granted bail on 19th and 20th August.


Detention of photojournalist Shahidul Alam

One of those arrested is 63 year-old Shahidul Alam, a well-known photojournalist and activist. He was detained by plainclothes policemen on 5th August 2018, hours after giving an interview to Al-Jazeera English on the student protests. He was charged a day later under Section 57 of the ICT Act for making "false" and "provocative" statements. Outside the magistrate’s court, Alam told reporters that he had been beaten in police custody.

On 13th August three UN experts issued a statement about his arrest. They said:

“The arrest and alleged ill-treatment of Mr. Alam is extremely worrying and takes place in a general context of a crackdown against young students and others calling for better public governance, reforms and justice in Bangladesh, including media workers and other civil society. We urge the relevant authorities to immediately release Mr. Alam and to take effective measures to have all allegations of torture investigated promptly, effectively and impartially. We also urge them to ensure a safe and enabling environment for media workers.”

On 6th August the Dhaka Metropolitan Magistrate court rejected a bail application from Alam's lawyers. On 14th August, the Dhaka Metropolitan Sessions Judge’s Court set 11th September to hear the case in response to an application. Then, on 19th August the court turned down an appeal seeking to hear the case earlier. Later, on 28th August another appeal seeking Alam’s bail was filed to the High Court. On 4th September, the High Court was due to hear Alam’s bail application, but this was again delayed after a High Court judge withdrew from the scheduled hearing citing "embarrassment".

Government seeking surveillance technology

Privacy International reported on 14th August 2018 that Bangladesh have been looking to buy electronic surveillance equipment from the international market. The organisation has come across documentation detailing some of the surveillance technology that Bangladeshi security forces have sought to purchase.

The Bangladeshi authorities have been actively seeking mobile phone surveillance equipment known as ‘IMSI Catchers’. These devices pretend to be real cell towers, enticing devices to connect to them. Once connected they can identify, track, and intercept communications from all the devices in a certain location. Using IMSI Catchers, it is possible to identify who is in a specific area, such as during a protest.

The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a notorious branch of the police, is also actively looking for other electronic surveillance equipment including  a “Wi-Fi Interceptor”, a “Laser Listening Device”, and an “Under-door Viewer”.

According to Privacy International, Bangladesh has also recently developed a National Telecommunications Monitoring Centre to spy on domestic telecommunications networks. By monitoring internet and phone traffic as it travels through networks, it’s possible to monitor, for example, communications metadata and to intercept calls or access unencrypted emails.


Ongoing impunity for enforced disappearances 

On 30th August 2018, the UN International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, legal rights advocacy group Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK) reported that at least 310 people have disappeared in Bangladesh between 2014 and 2018. Of that number, 44 dead bodies were later recovered, 33 returned alive, and 45 were later arrested. According to civil society organisation, Odhikar, around 435 people have disappeared between 2009 and May 2018.

According to Human Rights Watch, since 2013, law enforcement authorities in Bangladesh have illegally detained scores of opposition activists and held them in secret without producing them before courts, as the law requires. In most cases, those arrested remain in custody for weeks or months before being formally arrested or released. Others however are killed in so-called armed exchanges, and many remain “disappeared.” Such disappearances continue, but many of the targets are now political opponents.

Most recently, it was reported that the whereabouts of a dozen of road safety protesters remains unknown after law enforcers raided their houses in the capital’s Mohakhali and Tejgaon areas on 5th September 2018. The parents held a press conference at the Crime Reporters’ Association office on 9th September and claimed they were in the custody of the detective branch of Dhaka Metropolitan Police.

Arrests of opposition activists

The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) have accused the ruling government of conducting mass arrests of their activists and implicating them in false charges. On 7th September, BNP’s senior joint secretary general Ruhul Kabir Rizvi claimed that over 1,500 leaders and activists of the party were arrested across the country in the last two weeks. He said uniformed and plainclothes police had raided the residences of BNP leaders and had had harassed family members while searching their homes.