DHAKA: Human Rights Watch on Friday slammed Bangladesh authorities after a series of new arrests this week under the country's notorious internet laws, raising worries over the freedom of expression in the South Asian nation.
Prominent poet Henry Sawpon, lawyer and champion of indigenous people Imtiaz Mahmood and human rights defender Abdul Kaium were arrested in the past few days, prompting social media outrage and protests in the capital Dhaka and elsewhere.
Sawpon and Mahmood were released on bail Thursday, but Kaium remained in detention and faces charges of extortion and defamation under the digital security law.
These were first major arrests since the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, accused of increasing authoritarianism, took power in January for a fourth time after an election opposition parties and experts said were flawed and rigged.
Hasina's government, which has been in power since 2009, has been criticised for enacting draconian internet and digital security laws that many fear were being used to crackdown on dissent.
"Arresting activists, poets, and lawyers for exercising their right to free speech is straight out of the authoritarian playbook," said Brad Adams, Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch.
"The Bangladesh government should stop locking up its critics and review the law to ensure it upholds international standards on the right to peaceful expression," he said in a statement.
Sawpon, a Christian, was arrested on Wednesday after a Catholic priest filed a case against him, accusing him of hurting religious sentiments of the country's minority community.
In a series of posts on Facebook, Sawpon has written about corruption among the clergy and alleged sexual assaults of young girls.
Mahmood, a lawyer and an indigenous rights activists, has used his Facebook page to write about alleged crimes perpetrated against tribal people in the country's Chittagong hill districts.
Kaium is associated with the prominent human rights organisation Odhikar, whose chiefs were charged with "publishing false images and information" and "disrupting the law and order situation of the country".
Kaium also edits an online news portal in his hometown northern city of Mymensingh.
All three could face multiple years in jail if found guilty.
"This week's arrests show how small the space has become for civil society in Bangladesh," Adams said.
"Sheikh Hasina's government should revise the abusive elements of these laws before the space for peaceful expression disappears entirely."
Last August Bangladesh replaced its internet laws, which were used heavily to arrests scores of opposition activists and dissidents, with a more draconian digital security laws, despite protests by journalists and rights groups.
Hasina, however, has backed the law, saying "if there is no criminal mind, there is no reason to worry".