Free speech concerns in Bangladesh as writers, activist arrested

Three arrests in a week once again raise fears of crackdown on freedom of expression in the country and draw criticism.

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    A human chain formed by activists in front of Dhaka's national museum against the arrests [Mahmud Hossain Opu/Al Jazeera]
    A human chain formed by activists in front of Dhaka's national museum against the arrests [Mahmud Hossain Opu/Al Jazeera]

    Police in Bangladesh arrested three people, two writers and an activist, in the past week under the country's controversial Digital Security Act (DSA) and the Information and Communication Technology Act (ICTA).

    The arrests have once again raised fears of a crackdown on freedom of expression in the South Asian country and have drawn criticism from activists and international rights groups. Both the laws seek to curb free speech, mainly in the press, and carry a maximum punishment of 14 years each.

    Henry Sawpon, 48, a prominent poet living in the southern district of Barisal, was arrested under the DSA on Tuesday for allegedly hurting the religious sentiments of Bangladesh's minority Christian community. He was released on bail on Thursday morning.

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    Writer Imtiaz Mahmud, 61, was arrested under the ICTA in the capital Dhaka on Wednesday over a Facebook post in which he wrote about the rights of minorities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) region.

    CHT, a semi-autonomous region within Muslim-majority Bangladesh, shares borders with India and Myanmar. The region has for decades been the site of low-intensity conflict between its 13 ethnic minorities and the country's armed forces.

    The third arrest involved Abdul Kaium, a rights activist charged under the DSA on May 11 following a complaint by the principal of an Islamic school, who accused Abdul Kaium of "sharing improper content online".

    Three arrests in a week

    Barisal Metropolitan Police Commissioner Shahabuddin Khan told Al Jazeera that Sawpon, a Christian himself, has been charged with posting "slanderous" remarks against the Catholic Church of Barisal, a district with a large Christian population.

    The police report mentioned a post in which Sawpon allegedly criticised the Barisal diocese for holding a cultural event on Easter Sunday last month when more than 250 people were killed in serial bombings in churches and hotels in Sri Lanka.

    "When Rome was burning, Emperor Nero was playing with his flute," he allegedly posted on April 23, two days after the Sri Lanka attack.

    Sawpon's friend, poet Altaf Shahnewaz, told Al Jazeera that the Facebook post was an excuse and he was being framed. "He was vocal about misdeeds and embezzlement in Barisal churches. That’s why he was framed," he said.

    In Mahmud's case, police picked him up from his Banani home in Dhaka on Wednesday, his brother Parvez Mahmud told Al Jazeera.

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    "I came to know later that police were complying with a warrant issued by a Khagrachhari [a CHT district) court on January 21 this year," said Parvez.

    In July 2017, a case under the stringent ICTA was filed against Mahmud with the Khagrachhari police for inciting communal violence in the CHT region through his Facebook posts.

    On Abdul Kaium's arrest, Mymensingh police official Faruq Ahmed told Al Jazeera that he was accused of "sharing improper content online".

    "He was denied bail and was sent to jail by a court on Monday," Ahmed said.

    Activists in Dhaka protesting against the crackdown on freedom of speech [Mahmud Hossain Opu/Al Jazeera]

    Activists protest arrests

    Mahmud, also a lawyer at the country's Supreme Court, is known for his writings and activism, especially on the CHT issue.

    Sawpon, whose poems are published regularly in leading Bangladeshi newspapers and magazines, was granted bail on Thursday morning by a Barisal court. The bail will be effective till June 30, the date of the case's next hearing.

    Protesting the arrests on Wednesday in Dhaka, a group of writers, artists and journalists formed a human chain and demanded the release of the three within 24 hours.

    Writer and activist Robin Ahsan said the Bangladesh government is "walking in a backward direction" and Sawpon's arrest was "a glaring example".

    "Henry stayed back in Barisal since he loved his birthplace, while we all came to Dhaka for a better life. He has always written against communalism. But the administration of Barisal is ignorant," he said.

    The protesters threatened to go on an indefinite strike beginning Friday and called for the abolition of the DSA and ICT, calling the two laws "inhuman".

    Rights group Amnesty International also opposed their arrests under "draconian laws". "We call on the authorities to respect people’s right to peaceful freedom of expression," it posted on Twitter.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News