On June 14 2020, Bangladeshi authorities arrested Sirajum Munira, a lecturer in the Bangla department of Begum Rokeya University, for nonviolent social media comments.
In a post published to her Facebook account on June 13, Munira allegedly insulted Mohammad Nasim, a former health minister and a member of the nationalist Bangladesh Awami League political party, who died after contracting COVID-19, a novel coronavirus.
First detected in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, COVID-19 has become a global pandemic, with more than ten million cases confirmed as of June 29. In Bangladesh alone, more than 141,000 people have been infected with the disease and more than 1,700 people have died, according to data collected by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.
Sources do not specify the exact contents of Munira’s alleged posts, which were quickly circulated and condemned by members of the BAL and other groups. Munira reportedly apologized and deleted the comments. Meanwhile, a university official filed a complaint with the police.
In the pre-dawn hours of June 14, police arrested Munira under Bangladesh’s controversial Digital Security Act, which many activists criticize for its suppression of netizens’ freedom of expression. A growing number of people have been arrested under the law for expression critical of the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On June 18, a judge approved a police request to remand Munira in custody for five days. However, as of June 29, it is unclear whether Munira remains in custody.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arrest of a scholar for the nonviolent exercise of the right to freedom of expression — conduct that is expressly protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bangladesh is a party. State and university authorities have an obligation to refrain from retaliating against or restricting expressive activity, so long as it is nonviolent and responsible. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, arrests intended to punish expressive activity undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.