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US-based Human Rights Watch and other global rights bodies have asked Bangladesh to immediately release leading publisher Nur Mohammad and Sufi singer Shariat Sarker, who were detained for criticizing the ruling party and religious leaders.

The authorities should end all arbitrary arrests and a crackdown on freedom of expression under the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA), HRW said in a statement on Saturday.

Mohammad, the owner of Guardian Publications, was arrested on February 10, 2020, for “associating with” Enamul Haque Moni, who was arrested in 2018 for spreading “fake news and propaganda” about Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed and her son Sajeeb Wazed, and for digital fraud.

Sarker has been in prison for over a month on charges for “hurting religious sentiments” after he criticized Muslim clerics who oppose singing.

“The government has the responsibility to protect the right to speech and expression, not use its internet laws as an excuse to go after singers who criticize clerics or anyone who criticizes the prime minister or her family,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“The ruling Awami League should not be silencing its critics.”

In addition to charges for digital fraud and forgery, Mohammad could face a sentence of  life in prison for charges under section 25 of the law, which criminalizes publishing any content with the intention of “tarnishing the image of the nation.”

He is also charged under section 31, which criminalizes publishing or broadcasting any content that “destroys communal harmony” or “deteriorates or threatens to deteriorate the law and order” which carries up to 10 years in prison.

These terms are so vague and broad that the authorities can essentially arrest critics at will, effectively chilling free speech, said Dhaka-based Ain O Shalishi Kendro.

The First Information Report on Mohammad’s arrest filed by Rapid Action Batallion-2 Inspector Ikramul Haq Chowdhury in Dhaka Railway Police Station, accuses him of colluding in publishing material that was “spreading misinformation” about student protests for road safety and quota reform and thus “provoking anarchy in the country.”

It also says he promoted propaganda harmful to the reputation of the ruling Awami League ahead of the parliamentary election.

Evidence against Mohammad cited in the police investigation report includes news headlines allegedly published by Moni such as “Joy Makes His Mother Popular through a Non-Reputed Poll” and “Surprising Facts Behind “Withdrawing all Cases Against Hasina.”

Mohammad’s arrest comes after Guardian Publications was denied participation in Bangladesh’s largest annual book fair which takes place this month.

The company has published two books by Pinaki Bhattacharya, a leading critic of the prime minister.

Bhattacharya went into hiding and fled the country after security forces allegedly summoned him and raided his home in 2018 for expressing support for the student protests that summer.

This is not the first time that authorities have arrested people for criticizing the prime minister or her family.

In July 2019 a man was arrested under the DSA for allegedly sharing distorted images of the prime minister and her son on Facebook.

Human Rights Watch documented several such cases in its report on abuses under the previous Information and Communication Technology Act, which the DSA replaced.

The DSA was also used against the Sufi singer, Shariat Sarker, for accusing Islamic clerics of misinterpreting the Quran to forbid music and for reportedly saying “Our great Prophet Muhammad was an ardent fan of music and went to sleep at night after listening to music.”

Sayedur Rahman, the officer in charge at the Mirzapur police station in Tangail district said that Sarker was arrested after the police received a complaint about Sarker’s remarks.

“We questioned him in custody and found the allegations to be true,” he said.

If convicted, Sarker could face 10 years in prison.

Sarker is a Sufi Baul singer, a tradition of nomadic folk singers, which UNESCO included in 2005 in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

However, Baul singers have faced attacks by religious extremists in recent years.

When questioned about Sarker’s case, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said that “as he was arrested, surely he was involved in a crime,” denying that the case had anything to do with Baul singing.

Instead of quelling fears, she urged Baul singers to lay low and avoid trouble with the law.

“They mustn’t do such activities. They also have to remain cautious,” she said.

On February 12 the High Court issued a notice asking authorities to explain why Sarker has yet to be released on bail.

The Bangladesh government has ignored repeated calls from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United States, the European Union, journalists within Bangladesh and many others to bring the law in line with Bangladesh’s commitments under international law.

“Instead of recommending ‘caution,’ the prime minister should be upholding the democratic principles of free speech,” Adams said.

“People can be criticized or countered if their speech is offensive, but the state should not be locking up people simply because they said something the police decided is unpleasant.”

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