A total of 15 press freedom and human rights organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, have said that the Bangladesh government should be aware that the world is closely monitoring its retaliatory actions against family members of exiled journalists and government critics.
They asked the Bangladesh government to release Nusrat Shahrin Raka, sister of Bangladeshi journalist Kanak Sarwar. Besides, they urged the government to cease the judicial harassment of Kanak Sarwar by dropping all unwarranted charges brought against him in relation to his journalistic work.
The press and rights bodies made the call in a letter sent to attorney general Abu Mohammad Amin Uddin on Thursday.
The letter said, “Given credible allegations of the Rapid Action Battalion’s involvement in widespread enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh, we are concerned not only for Raka’s liberty, but also her security. We urge you to facilitate Raka’s pre-trial release from jail and cease the judicial harassment of Sarwar.”
Full text of the letter is as follows:
January 27, 2022
Mr. Abu Mohammad Amin Uddin
Attorney General’s Office of Bangladesh
People’s Republic of Bangladesh
Dear Attorney General Abu Mohammad Amin Uddin,
We, the undersigned 15 press freedom and human rights organizations, write to urge you to withdraw opposition to pre-trial bail for Nusrat Shahrin Raka, a homemaker and sister of exiled Bangladeshi journalist Kanak Sarwar, and to work cooperatively with Raka’s lawyers and the relevant courts to facilitate her immediate release from jail.
We also request that you cease the judicial harassment of Kanak Sarwar by dropping all unwarranted charges brought against him in relation to his journalistic work. Further, we call on the Bangladesh government to repeal the Digital Security Act unless it can be promptly amended in line with international human rights law and standards with regard to the fundamental right of freedom of expression.
We have reviewed credible allegations that authorities have targeted Raka in retaliation for Sarwar’s criticism of the Bangladesh government on his YouTube channel, Kanak Sarwar News. The persecution of Raka signals that authorities will use drastic means to silence critical reporting, whether in Bangladesh or abroad, amid an intensifying assault on the fundamental right to freedom of expression.
In the early hours of October 5, 2021, Rapid Action Battalion officers raided Raka’s home in Uttara and took her and her three sons, who are minors, to the battalion’s headquarters.
Raka’s three sons were released approximately 30 hours later, according to her family, who allege that officers then held and subjected Raka to extended interrogation, during which they questioned her repeatedly about Sarwar, asking why he opposed the Bangladesh government and referring to him as a “freedom fighter.”
Raka’s family further alleges that Rapid Action Battalion officers threatened to charge her with possession of methamphetamines unless she confessed to making Facebook posts critical of the government.
In a press release published on October 5, 2021, the Rapid Action Battalion accused Raka of being an “active member of an anti-state propaganda and conspiracy circle” with Sarwar and referred to him as a “traitor,” further suggesting that authorities detained Raka in retaliation for her relationship to the journalist.
On October 5, 2021, Rapid Action Battalion filed a first information report against Raka under the Digital Security Act, citing posts critical of Bangladesh government officials and agencies published on a fraudulent Facebook account that Raka herself reported to the Uttara West police station for falsely imitating her on October 1, 2021. Facebook subsequently removed the account for violating its policies on “inauthentic behavior.”
The next day, the Rapid Action Battalion filed an additional first information report against Raka under the Narcotics Control Act. Given the authorities’ use of evidence from a fraudulent Facebook account in the Digital Security Act case and allegations, including by the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, that the battalion has planted illegal drugs at crime scenes, we are concerned that the evidence of narcotics possession was manufactured as well.
Raka continues to be detained in an overcrowded cell with around 50 people in Kashimpur Central Jail, where she is currently recovering from COVID-19 and has been unable to assist in the care of her sons, one of whom suffers from serious medical issues, according to her family.
Further, the Detective Branch of the Dhaka police and the Rapid Action Battalion each filed remand applications at the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Court on December 12, 2021 and January 5, 2022, respectively, to interrogate Raka about Sarwar’s sources and methods of collecting information, according to her family. Both applications were subsequently rejected.
Additionally, we are deeply concerned about Raka’s fundamental right to prompt judicial review in light of her family’s claim that the state postponed her bail hearing at the High Court on five separate occasions in December 2021 and January 2022 before the court refused to grant bail on January 25, 2022 despite asking the state to explain why Raka should not be granted bail in the Digital Security Act case.
Further, we are deeply concerned by the Bangladesh government’s apparent efforts to intimidate and harass Sarwar as he continues to report in exile. Since Sarwar fled Bangladesh in 2016, authorities have charged Sarwar with sedition, filed a first information report against him under the Digital Security Act, and charged him under the Digital Security Act. The accusations against Sarwar in all three cases appear to be related to his journalistic work.
The Bangladesh government should be aware that the world is closely monitoring its retaliatory actions against family members of exiled journalists and government critics. Given credible allegations of the Rapid Action Battalion’s involvement in widespread enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh, we are concerned not only for Raka’s liberty, but also her security. We urge you to facilitate Raka’s pre-trial release from jail and cease the judicial harassment of Sarwar.
Further, we welcome Law Minister Anisul Haq’s acknowledgment that the Digital Security Act has been “misused and abused.” If the Bangladesh government is unable to amend the Digital Security Act to protect the fundamental right to freedom of expression as guaranteed under international human rights law and standards, then it must take immediate steps to repeal the law.
Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network
Asian Human Rights Commission
Capital Punishment Justice Project
Coalition for Human Rights & Democracy in Bangladesh
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
Human Rights Watch
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)
Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights