The UN says the Digital Security Act is being used to punish critics of the government, including its environmental policies.
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 concerns about a coal-fired power project in Banshkhali, southeastern Bangladesh.
Chowdhury, from Gandamara in Banshkhali, had called on young people to ‘stand up to injustice’ as he feared the impact of the ‘environmentally destructive factory’. He was charged with publishing “false and offensive” information and creating “chaos”, under the DSA.
“We demanded an eco-friendly factory that will benefit the community and not harm the environment, and because I wrote about this issue I was arrested under the Digital Security Act and I had to go to jail for 80 days,” said Chowdhury, who could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of the offenses he is charged with under the law, which defense organizations rights have been described as “draconian”.
The maximum sentence provided by law is 14 years.
Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina’s government defended the law, saying it was necessary to maintain order.
The government’s plan to commission a coal-fired power plant in the country’s environmentally fragile areas has been the subject of protests. At least 12 workers and locals have been killed in the past six years by police fire during protests against the Banshkhali factory.
Demonstrations also took place against another large coal-fired power plant in the southwestern region of Rampal, near the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world.
The protests prompted the government to label some activists as “terrorists” after the DSA was enacted in 2018.
The law provides for a prison term of up to 14 years for anyone who secretly records government officials or collects information from a government agency using a computer or other digital device. It also provides similar penalties 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 crack down on environmental activism. He called on the authorities to change the law and stop using it to arrest people.
During a visit to Bangladesh last month, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and climate change, Ian Fry, called for an end to the harassment of climate change activists.
“Various human rights bodies, including the UN, have long raised concerns about broad and ill-defined provisions of the Digital Security Act that have been used to punish government critics. “Fry said.
“The harassment, threats and intimidation against human rights defenders and indigenous climate change peoples must stop,” Fry said at a press conference on Thursday.
“The Digital Security Act needs to be changed so that human rights defenders and climate change indigenous peoples are not caught up in a huge definitional problem related to terrorism. These people are not terrorists.
The DSA has also been criticized by rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, which said authorities used it to harass and indefinitely detain journalists and other government critics.
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 seeing now is that some of the government offices are helping companies harass environmental activists,” said environmental lawyer Rizwana Hasan.
“We see that government agencies are also taking the initiative to officially criminalize environmental defenders,” Hasan told Al Jazeera.
Bangladesh Justice Minister Anisul Huq said in an interview with Al Jazeera late last year that the DSA Act would be reviewed and amended.