On June 18 2020, Bangladeshi authorities arrested Kazi Zahidur Rahman, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Rajshahi University (RU) and a research secretary of the Awami League, for alleged social media activity.
In connection with alleged posts published to his Facebook account on June 1 and 2, Rahman was reportedly accused of criticizing the late Mohammad Nasim, a former health minister and a member of the Bangladesh Awami League, a nationalist political party. At the time Rahman allegedly published the posts, Nasim had contracted the novel coronavirus COVID-19 and was hospitalized; he later died on June 13. Sources indicate that the alleged posts commented on corruption within the health sector during Nasim’s tenure, but did not mention the former health minister by name.
Tapas Kumar Saha, a lawyer and secretary of the Awami League’s Boalia Thana Unit, filed a complaint against Rahman to the Motihar Police Station on June 17, accusing him of spreading defamatory information about Nasim that hurt public sentiment. Saha claimed that Rahman’s social media comments targeted Nasim because he had also commented on a post of a Channel i news story, which referenced Nasim’s worsening health condition. As of this report, authorities have not released the exact content of the social media posts.
On July 18, at 2:00 AM, police arrested Rahman at his campus quarters under Bangladesh’s controversial Digital Security Act, which many activists say suppresses 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. Rahman is the second professor to be arrested in a case filed under the Digital Security Act. Sirajum Munira, a lecturer at Begum Rokeya University, was arrested a week prior for reportedly making derogatory remarks in a Facebook post after the death of Nasim (see report).
Following his arrest, university officials suspended Rahman from his position at Rajshahi University. As of this report, there is no public information indicating Rahman’s status, including whether he is currently imprisoned.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arrest and suspension 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.