UN accuses Bangladesh of suppressing environmental activism

The UN says the Digital Security Act is being used to punish criticism of government, including its environmental policies.

Activists take part in a rally to mark the Global Climate Strike in Dhaka on September 23, 2022. (Photo by Munir UZ ZAMAN / AFP)
The UN has called on authorities to amend the Digital Security Act [File: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP]

Dhaka, Bangladesh – Environmental activist Shahnewaz Chowdhury is currently out on bail. The 37-year-old was arrested in May under the Digital Security Act (DSA) for a Facebook post expressing his concerns about a coal power project in Banshkhali in southeastern Bangladesh.

Chowdhury, who hails from Gandamara in Banshkhali, had called on the youth to “resist injustice” as he feared the impact of “the environmentally destructive” plant. He was accused of publishing “false and offensive” information and creating “chaos”, under the DSA.

“We demanded for an environmentally friendly plant that will benefit the community and not hurt the environment, and because I wrote on this issue, I was arrested under Digital Security Act and had to go to jail for 80 days,” said Chowdhury, who could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted for the offences he has been charged with under the law, which rights organisations have termed “draconian“.

The maximum punishment under the law is 14 years.

Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina’s government has defended the law, saying it is necessary to maintain order.

The government’s plan to commission a coal-fired power plant in the country’s ecologically fragile areas has faced protests. At least 12 workers and local people have been killed over the last six years by police fire during protests against the Banshkhali plant.

Demonstrations have also been held against another large coal-fired plant in the southwestern region of Rampal near Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest.

The protests have prompted the government to label some activists “terrorists” after the DSA was enacted in 2018.

‘End the harassment’

The law has a provision for a jail term of up to 14 years for anyone who secretly records government officials or gathers information from a government agency using a computer or other digital device. It also sets similar punishments for people who spread “negative propaganda” about the country’s 1971 war of independence and its founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – father of Prime Minister Hasina.

Critics say the provision allows police to arrest journalists and confiscate their equipment without a court order, prompting the United Nations to accuse Bangladesh of using the law to suppress environmental activism. It has called on authorities to amend the Act and stop using it to arrest people.

UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Climate Change Ian Fry during a visit to Bangladesh last month called for an end to the harassment of climate change activists.

“Various human rights bodies, including the UN, have long raised concerns about the ill-defined, broad provisions of the Digital Security Act that have been used to punish criticism of the government,” said Fry.

“The harassment and threats and intimidation against climate change human rights defenders and Indigenous peoples must end,” Fry said at a press conference on Thursday.

“The Digital Security Act needs to be amended so that climate change human rights defenders and Indigenous peoples are not caught up in a broad definitional issue related to terrorism. These people are not terrorists.”

The DSA was also slammed by rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch who said authorities exploit it to harass and indefinitely detain journalists and other critics of the government.

Former UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has called for an “overhaul” of the DSA in the past.

More than 1,000 people have been detained under the DSA, according to local media figures.

“What we are observing now is that some of the government offices are aiding the corporations in harassing the environmental activists,” said environmental lawyer Rizwana Hasan.

“We are seeing that the government agencies are also now taking initiative to officially criminalise the environmental defenders,” Hasan told Al Jazeera.

Bangladesh’s law minister Anisul Huq said in an interview with Al Jazeera late last year that the DSA law would be reviewed and amended.

Source: Al Jazeera