In the midst of apparent stability where the political oppositions were almost crippled to pose any substantial challenge to Awami League, the current ruling party of Bangladesh, two massive student uprisings in a short span of just a month (July-August) rocked the regime to the core. Quite unsurprisingly, the government was able to quell the movements for the time being by deceptive promises, use of excessive force and fear through arbitrary arrests and tortures. Despite the apparent defeat, these two youth movements with their unprecedented patterns, deep-rooted socio-political impact and significant public reception rang an alarm to the current regime which lacks legitimacy, and yet approaching towards a sham national election in a few days.
While the government was apparently successful to suppress the July protests of university students for public service quota reform by coloring it as political conspiracy, followed by consequent sabotage, arrests, abductions and tortures, it was having a hard time tackling the massive protests for safe roads by teens which literally brought the capital city to a standstill for about a week. As an alternate strategy, the government initiated an all-out crackdown upon the active voices in social media that supported and encouraged the student protests, by terming those activisms as ‘incitement of violence by spreading rumors’ or ‘provocative remarks’.
This impulsive crackdown upon the apolitical youth and teens who were merely protesting for their civil rights is a significant landmark of the gradual descent of Bangladesh to an autocracy. In a strange turn of events, Awami League has lost all legitimacy, credibility and public support from the new generations
Arrests and custodial tortures
As a result, more than hundreds were arrested in about 52 different cases filed by the police. Among the arrestees, acclaimed photo-journalist Dr. Shahidul Alam was picked up by the detectives for his ‘provocative comments’ during an interview to Al Jazeera about the government’s strategy to tackle to read safety protests. Kazi Nowshaba Ahmed, a popular film actress was arrested over an emotional public call on her facebook profile to save the protesters who were being attacked by Awami League goons. She was accused of spreading false news. Mr. Yusuf Chowdhury, CEO of a popular online media portal zoombangla.com along with Daiyan Alam, a bright student of Bangladesh University of Engineering Technology was arrested for ‘yellow journalism’ and ‘spreading rumors’. Nusrat Jahan, a pregnant school teacher from a small village at the southern part of the country was nabbed by police for giving ‘inciting’ statuses in facebook. Faria Mahjabin, a young entrepreneur who runs a popular coffee shop in Dhaka was detained by RAB for spreading rumors in social media.
Later on, the govt. began to use forces upon not only the protesting teens and social media dissidents, but also upon university students, many of whom did not even participate in the protests. A number of students from the leading private universities of Bangladesh were arrested from the vicinity of their respective institutions.
All of the arrestees were granted remand of multiple days for quizzing by local courts, and many of them allegedly underwent severe tortures in custody. For example, photo-journalist Shahidul Alam is currently suffering from breathing difficulties, eyesight problems and pain in the jaw and gums, although he did not have any such health issues before the arrest, according to his family. After a row of remand, actress Nowshabawas admitted to Dhaka Medical College Hospital where the doctors diagnosed her with dysentery and problems in spinal cords. Most of the arrestees were denied bails multiple times, although multiple remandswere granted.
The diversity of the arrestees, who come from all flocks of life and were accused for same ‘offence’ i.e. spreading rumors or provocative comments online implicates the gloomy state of free speech in Bangladesh. The Awami League regime is treating the apolitical citizen movements with the same harshness it applied for crushing the political oppositions.
The persons arrested for spreading rumors or provocative remarks in social media were produced before the courts under the infamous section 57 of the Information, Communication and Technology Act, 2006. Rampant abuse of this draconian provision has long been subjected to massive criticism from all concerned corners. As a result, the govt. has initiated to replace the law with a new ‘Digital Security Act’ (which many analysts presume, will have harsher provisions than the existing law). The provision was abruptly used as a tool for suppressing any means of dissidence, and in many cases came down to utilize personal vengeance of ruling party leaders (even for something as silly as death of goats).
As an alternate strategy, the government initiated an all-out crackdown upon the active voices in social media
The treatment of the dissidents and protesters by the government directly violates the existing legal and judicial framework of Bangladesh with regards to arrest, remand and custodial torture. In the awake of severe criticism of custodial tortures and killings of political opponents, Bangladesh implemented a law specifically to prevent custodial torture in 2013. To supplement the protection, the apex court of Bangladesh issued a detailed guidance in 2016 aimed to the law enforcing agencies and the magistrates and judges with a specific purpose of, amongst others, preventing custodial tortures in any manner. In reality however, neither the law nor the directions of the Supreme Court are followed accordingly.
This impulsive crackdown upon the apolitical youth and teens who were merely protesting for their civil rights is a significant landmark of the gradual descent of Bangladesh to an autocracy. In a strange turn of events, Awami League, the party which came into power in 2008 with the support from the youth has lost all legitimacy, credibility and public support from the new generations, which may lead to its political bankruptcy in the long run. It is however true that the carrot and stick strategy currently implemented by the ruling regime has been successful, and it appears that both the political and civil dissidents of Bangladesh will have a dark time ahead in the reign of this one-party autocracy.
The writer is a columnist and independent analyst.