Bangladeshi authorities must immediately stop harassing and intimidating the family members of exiled blogger Asad Noor and other human rights defenders, Amnesty International said today.
The work of people defending human rights in Bangladesh has become increasingly challenging. In recent years, many bloggers and human rights defenders have fled from persecution at home and sought protection abroad while continuing their activism. However, the authorities are now targeting their families remaining in the country in an effort to silence them.
“The harassment of families, to muzzle human rights defenders in exile from Bangladesh, is utterly reprehensible. Such tactics of intimidation must be stopped immediately,” said Sultan Mohammed Zakaria, South Asia Researcher at Amnesty International.
“Instead, the authorities have the responsibility to prevent and effectively address allegations of human rights abuses and ensure a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders, including by carrying out prompt and independent investigations and bringing suspected perpetrators to justice,” said Sultan Mohammed Zakaria.
In July, Asad Noor published several video blogs protesting the persecution of the minority Buddhist community in Rangunia upazila in the south-eastern district Chattogram. A local youth leader of the ruling party Awami League sued Asad on 14 July 2020 under the draconian Digital Security Act, accusing him of “hurting religious sentiments” and “running propaganda against the spirit of the liberation war.”
Amnesty International has found that the local police of Amtali raided Asad’s parental house in Amtali village in the southern district Barguna on midnight from 14-15 July, and being unable to find Asad (as he is in exile), harassed his parents. Police raided their house again on 16 July. On 18 July in the early morning, the police raided the house again and detained Asad’s father Tofazzal Hossain, his mother Rabeya Begum, two younger sisters (one was minor), and two other relatives, without any formal charge or warrant. The local police kept the family members in detention for 40 hours before releasing them in the night of 19 July.
A member of Asad’s family, who was detained at the same time, told Amnesty International that during their detention, the police inquired about Asad’s whereabouts and warned his parents to urge Asad not to write or publish anything directed against the government or its officials and stop writing contents to defend the Buddhist minority. The police demanded of Asad’s parents to ask him to delete all his video blogs or otherwise face persecution.
Though the local police released Asad’s family, Amnesty International learnt that they continued to intimidate and harass his parents on at least two other occasions in the past fortnight. On 4 August, the Amtali police asked Asad’s father Tofazzal Hossain to come to the police station.
When Tofazzal Hossain visited the police station at 4pm the next day, he was forced to stay until 1 1 pm. He said police forced him to put a statement on record that he would urge Asad to stop writing and publishing contents against the government or defending the rights of the minority Buddhist community.
“The harassment of Asad’s family is not an isolated incident. It is part of a worrying pattern targeting families of human rights defenders in exile,” said Sultan Mohammed Zakaria.
On 9 April 2020, members of Bangladesh’s military intelligence agency paid an unwarranted visit to the parental residence of Sweden-based Bangladeshi journalist, Tasneem Khalil, and warned his ailing mother that Tasneem’s writings are “tarnishing the image of the country.” On 22 April 2020, the police of the south-eastern district Noakhali visited the residence of an expatriate micro-blogger (name withheld) in Dagonbhuiyan and harassed his mother for his writings on Facebook. They spoke to the blogger on his mother’s phone, instructed him to shut down his Facebook, and took away original copies of his mother’s National Identity Card and Birth Registration Certificate. On 13 May 2020, Asaduzzaman Khan, the Minister for Home Affairs, issued a warning to exiled human rights defenders that if they continued to “tarnish the image of the country” abroad, the government would invalidate their passports.
“Bangladeshi authorities have been muzzling free expression online for years using controversial provisions of the draconian Digital Security Act. While the repression has sharply escalated during the COVID-19 pandemic, the attempts to intimidate and harass families of human rights defenders in exile are a new low. Bangladeshi authorities must respect the rule of law, guarantee people’s right to freedom of expression, and stop targeting families to silence human rights defenders. The Digital Security Act, which has become a central tool of muzzling dissent online, must be amended in compliance with international human rights law” said Sultan Mohammed Zakaria.
According to the Bangladesh government’s official statistics, at least 38 journalists and more than 400 other people have been detained during the first half of 2020 under the Digital Security Act. The threats on bloggers and other authors have multiplied in recent years. Since 2013, more than a dozen secular, atheistic, or non-Muslim writers, bloggers, and activists have been killed at the hands of unidentified miscreants, while the government, instead of investigating and prosecuting those suspected of responsibility, asked the activists to tone down their writings. Many bloggers and authors are facing persecution from state authorities.
Asad Noor, who started blogging in 2013, has been facing threats and intimidation for his human rights work since 2015 both from state and non-state actors. On 26 December 2017, he was detained after an Islamic religious clergy sued him for creating and spreading content on social media that “hurt religious sentiments.” Asad was released on bail on 16 August 2018, only to be detained again one month later on 1 1 September 2018 by the military intelligence agency. Asad was eventually released on mid-January 2019, and had decided to leave Bangladesh in February 2019 to seek protection abroad, where he continues his online activism. Even during his exile, Asad, and his family in Bangladesh, continued to receive threats both from state agencies and non-state actors.