At least 20 people were arrested and nearly 400 indicted last year under the Digital Security Act
Bangladesh continued to host nearly a million refugees and inched towards the progressive realisation of economic and social rights, while some freedoms remained under attack in 2019, said Amnesty International.
In its annual Human Rights in the Asia Pacific: Review of 2019 report published on Thursday, the human rights organisation said the space for dissent is shrinking in the country.
"The rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly were increasingly restricted through draconian laws that actively shrink the space for dissent. People in Bangladesh continued to be harassed and arrested for speaking out," said Sultan Mohammed Zakaria, South Asia researcher at Amnesty International.
Nasima Begum, chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Bangladesh, refused to make any comment over phone on the report.
Shrinking space for dissent
The human rights organisation said that under the repressive Digital Security Act, which enables the intimidation of dissenting voices, at least 20 people were arrested and nearly 400 indictments filed last year.
"The act gives sweeping powers to the police to arrest and detain people," is said in the report.
According to the report, in February, five journalists were sued, including one who was detained and later released by the police for reporting on police corruption. Fear of reprisals and intimidation from intelligence forced journalists to self-censor.
A young man was arrested by the Rapid Action Battalion and sentenced to seven years for posting a "distorted image" of the prime minister on Facebook. He was later released.
Amnesty International further said the political opposition was not allowed to organise campaign meetings and political rallies in a violation of their rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly.
In October, Abrar Fahad, a student of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, was beaten to death at his dormitory days after criticising the government's agreement with India on Facebook.
"Heavy-handed tactics employed by the student wing affiliated to the ruling party demonstrate they have little patience for people who disagree with their views and policies. The risks associated with exercising the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are becoming increasingly high in Bangladesh," said Zakaria.
He added that the authorities must respect and protect people's right to express and organise themselves without fear and repression.
Violence and extrajudicial executions
The report said more than 388 people were killed by the security forces in alleged extrajudicial executions, carried out as part of the country's "war on drugs" campaign.
In some cases, victims were forcibly disappeared for months before they were killed in what the authorities claimed were "gunfights." In addition, at least 13 people were forcibly disappeared last year.
There were at least 4,732 reported incidents of violence against women and girls, including 2,448 rapes and 400 attempted rapes, the report said.
In September 2019, there were 232 reported cases of rape – the highest in a single month since 2010.
"A failing criminal justice system and the lack of government commitment to end violence against women and punish the perpetrators contribute to a prevailing culture of impunity. Urgent measures to protect women and girls from all violence must put into place immediately," said Zakaria.
Bangladesh continued to host nearly a million Rohingya refugees in camps in Cox's Bazar. There were fears they may be forcibly returned to Myanmar or relocated offshore on to Bhasan Char, a silt island.
According to the report, the Rohingya faced many restrictions within Cox's Bazar, including on their freedom of movement and access to education for children. They were also the subject of a smear campaign within Bangladesh that portrayed them as a "burden" and even a threat to "national security."
The report said, "In September, regulatory authorities ordered mobile phone companies to shut down network frequencies inside refugee camps, while the security forces recommended erecting barbed wire fences around the camp, leading to further marginalisation."