Bangladesh’s government said Monday it would overhaul controversial security laws the opposition says are being used to stifle dissent but rights groups feared it could result in the same “repressive features”.
Opposition parties accuse Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of using the 2018 Digital Security Act (DSA) to crack down on dissenting voices and have vowed to scrap it if they win elections slated for January.
Justice minister Anisul Huq said Monday cabinet had approved changes, which include a reduction in punishments in a bid to “prevent some misuse and abuse”.
“We have reduced the penal provisions,” Huq told reporters.
He said its name would be changed to the Cyber Security Act and that the punishment for defamation would be changed from jail to a fine.
Amnesty International said it welcomed the move to change the act, which it called “a draconian law which was weaponised by the ruling party and its affiliates to stifle dissent and thwart freedom of expression online”.
But it also voiced caution and said the new act should “not rehash the same repressive features”.
Human Rights Watch has said the “vague and overly broad measures” of the DSA had been used to “harass and indefinitely detain” activists and journalists.
One study by the Centre for Governance Studies, a Bangladesh think tank, found that the law was used to charge more than 1,500 people between January 2020 and September 15, 2021, including scores of journalists, teachers, politicians and students.
Bangladesh’s next general election is due before the current parliament’s term expires in January.
The opposition has called for Hasina to step down and for the polls to take place under a neutral caretaker government. Hasina has rejected the demand as unconstitutional.
Western governments have expressed concern over the political climate in Bangladesh, where the ruling party dominates the legislature and runs it as virtually a rubber stamp.