Bangladesh accused of violent crackdown on free speech

Bangladeshi journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol, known as Kajol, said he was held in an underground cell for 53 days, where he alleges he was tortured, a media report said.

“They’d asked me about the stories I had written. I had to face a lot of torture. I still struggle to speak about it,” the BBC quoted Kajol as saying

“There are no human rights in this country,” the 54-year-old said speaking from a secret location. “I live in continuous fear.”

Kajol chose to talk in the same week security forces clashed with members of the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) in the capital Dhaka, ahead of mass anti-government protests planned for Human Rights Day in Bangladesh on Saturday.

The BNP is calling for people to take to the streets to demonstrate against the government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party.

Among their main concerns are calls for free and fair elections, worries over the rising cost of living, and reports of human rights abuses.

In the run-up, opposition officials have also been detained by police, in what critics say is a direct attempt to crush any form of dissent, the BBC reported.

Bangladesh’s government denies it is cracking down on freedom of expression.

In an interview with the BBC, the country’s Foreign Minister Abdul Momen said protesters were gathering unlawfully.

He however, dismissed suggestions that his government was stifling free speech, stressing that his nation, formed in 1971 after a war with Pakistan, was founded “to uphold democracy, human rights, and justice”.

When Kajol went missing in March 2020, the UN was among the organisations which voiced concerns.

In a statement it had said “the targeting of investigative journalists like Shafiqul Islam Kajol raises serious questions about Bangladesh’s commitment to a free and independent media”.

The day before he disappeared Kajol had published an article detailing allegations of a sex-trafficking ring involving politicians.

Soon after, his lawyer said a member of the ruling Awami League party filed a case against him and others over the story, the BBC reported.

Human Rights Watch says it has heard evidence of the existence of secret detention sites in Bangladesh, and has called on the government to investigate these allegations and release anyone still being held at them.

“We have heard they are often underground, with very little natural light. Some people have said they can hear other people being tortured. It’s very disturbing,” Meenakshi Ganguly, the organization’s South Asia director told the BBC.

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