Who will give Khadija back 15 months of her life?

Jagannath University student Khadijatul KubraFile photo

Khadijatul Kubra could only prove herself innocent after finally being acquitted in the two cases filed against her. This student of Jagannath University is completely innocent in the eyes of the law. Dhaka Cyber Tribunal judge AM Zulfiqar Hayat on Thursday acquitted Khadija in the case filed against her at the New Market police station. She was acquitted of charges on 28 January in the case filed against her at the Kalabagan police station.

Khadija had to fight a long legal battle to be acquitted in the cases under the Digital Security Act. Her bail appeals were repeated rejected. She had to remain in jail for 15 months despite not committing any crime. Her studies were hampered.

Khadija is a third year student of political science at Jagannath University. Two separate cases were filed against her and retired Major Delwar Hossain in October 2020 under the Digital Security Act. One was filed at the New Market police station and the other at the Kalabagan police station, both in the capital.

In May 2022 the police submitted charge sheets in both cases. Taking these charge sheets into cognizance, the Dhaka Cyber Tribunal issued arrest warrants against both of the accused. On 27 August that year Khadija was arrested from her home in Mirpur by police of the New Market police station.

After that, Khadija’s bail petition was rejected twice by the trial court. On 16 February 2022, the High Court granted Khadija bail. Then following an appeal, the chamber court suspended the bail order of the High Court. The appeal placed by the state prosecution was sent to the regular bench of the Appellate Division for hearing. On 15 November, the Appellate Division dismissed the state prosecution’s leave to appeal against Khadija’s bail. On 20 November Khadijatul Kubra was released from the Kashempur Central Women’s Jail in Gazipur. Upon her release, she said, “I can hardly believe that I have been released.” It is hardly believable indeed. She had been sent to jail for conducting a programme on an online platform.

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At the time I had written in Prothom Alo, “Khadija has been released, the struggle is not over.” We can hope that with Khadija being acquitted of charges in both cases, her struggle is over. She will no longer have to rush to and fro in the corridors of the court. In the meantime time, 15 months have dropped away from Khadija’s life. When she should have been in the classroom or taking exams, she was trapped in a dark cell of prison. What sort of law is this?

It is the responsibility of the state to protect its citizens, not to fling them into jail at the slightest allegation.

So what was Khadija’s offence? Alongside her studies, she would run an online platform. If a guest on one of the programmes of the platform she was conducting made remarks against the government, why should she be held responsible. We see Awami League and BNP leaders every day embroiled in heated debate on the TV talk shows. Some even threaten to gouge out the eyes of the other. No case was filed against the anchor of the show. But cases were filed against Khadija.

According to her birth certificate, she was under 18 when the case was lodged against her. In that case, the matter should have been dealt with under the Children Act. The law enforcement thus paid no heed to the law. In September last year the government abolished the Digital Security Act (DSA) and enforced the Cyber Security Act. Though this was ostensibly to deal with offences in the digital media, this has been used extensively against journalists and those with dissenting views. Law minister Anisul Huq himself has admitted to the misuse of this law.

In the eyes of the law, if anyone committees a crime, he or she will be punished. But the Digital Security Act is so alarming that if a case is filed against anyone under this law, he or she will be placed behind bars

The government policymakers did not feel the need to take into consideration the concern of the stakeholders in the media regarding the Digital Security Act. It was only when the UN Human Rights Commission took up a stern stance against this law that the government came to its senses. The ministers said, yes, the law will be amended. Later it was seen that the rather than any amendment, a law under the name of Cyber Security Act was used to replace the Digital Security Act. Journalists and dissenting voices remain at risk under this law too.

Justice Sheikh Hasan of the High Court recent said at a workshop, certain sections of this law can be extremely threatening for journalists. However, despite all these dangers and risks, the new law is somewhat laxer.

Law minister Anisul Huq on 5 June last year said in parliament, till 31 January 2023, a total of 7,001 cases have been filed under the Digital Security Act. Yet only 2per cent of these were settled. That means the persons accused under this law spent years and years in jail without trial and many still remain behind bars. Those granted bail have to appear in court every month.

Certain legal experts raised the question as to how justified it was to continue with the cases under the Digital Security Act after this law had been abolished. The law minister reasoned that the trial will be held under the law which was in place at the time that the charges were filed. But in the case of DSA, it is seen that many cases were lodged even though no offence was committed. Many refer these to as ‘fictional cases’. If a cases as no basis whatsoever, how can there be a trial? This was simply created to suppress the voices of dissenters and journalists.

In the eyes of the law, if anyone committees a crime, he or she will be punished. But the Digital Security Act is so alarming that if a case is filed against anyone under this law, he or she will be placed behind bars. In March last year, Prothom Alo’s Savar correspondent Samsuzzaman had highlighted the grievances of a day labourer for which he was arrested and taken to an unknown location, 20 hours after which he was charged under the Digital Security Act. A case was filed against the Prothom Alo editor Matiur Rahman under the same law. They both on bail at present and have to regularly turn up at court.

Let the cases filed under the Digital Security Act against the Prothom Alo editor and correspondent and all others be withdrawn or dismissed. Even accepting the law minister’s contention, we ask how can there be a trial in a case that has no basis whatsoever?

* Sohrab Hassan is joint editor at Prothom Alo and a poet. He can be contacted at [email protected]

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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