Some 196 cases have been filed under the Digital Security Act in the Dhaka metropolitan area in December 2021 to June this year, as lawsuits under the controversial act amounted to 45 in the metropolis in November alone last year, according to official data.
The number of cases under the act fell to 27 in December last year after the US sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and its top officials in that month. Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) data show the number of such cases kept falling in later months too.
In Dhaka city, 262 cases in 2020 and 346 cases in 2021 were filed under the Digital Security Act (DSA) – a law which the Human Rights Watch labels as "abusive" and designed to "harass and indefinitely detain" activists, journalists, and others critical of the government.
Local human rights activists attribute the fall in DSA cases to US sanctions on RAB and seven of its current and former officials on 10 December 2021.
At a programme in Dhaka in April this year, Inspector General of Bangladesh Police Benazir Ahmed too asked cops not to lodge cases under the act. Subsequently, the number of DSA cases started to decline across the country as well as in Dhaka.
"We have to be careful in enforcing the Digital Security Act, as several quarters at home and abroad are trying to hatch different conspiracies and pressurise us," Benazir – who also faces the US ban – told the programme.
The Business Standard contacted Police Headquarters seeking the district-wise DSA case data, but to no avail. Police in several districts, however, said the number of cases has declined substantially as they have been instructed not to record DSA cases abruptly.
The USA has been expressing its concerns over human rights issues since the DSA was enacted in 2018. US Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter Haas in May reiterated Washington's concern about the act.
In the wake of criticisms both at home and abroad, the police headquarters last year asked its units to notify before lodging a case under DSA.
A number of DMP officials in conditions of anonymity said the US sanctions mentioned harassment by DSA, which ultimately led to widespread criticism. Therefore, cops have been discouraged from recording cases under the act.
They said filing a DSA case in Dhaka city will require the permission of DMP commissioner or additional commissioner (crime).
However, police headquarters refuse to make any official comment about the falling DSA cases.
In the December-June period, the number of extrajudicial killing – which the law enforcers claim to be due to firing in self-defence – and custodial death also saw a sharp decline too.
In the seven months, there were only two crossfire deaths – both by RAB – across the country, as the figure was 43 during the corresponding period last year.
Custodial death dropped to 10 in December-June from 67 during the corresponding period in the previous year. During the seven months, two persons were reported whisked up by plain-clothes detectives – one returned later and another was shown arrested.
Commander Khandaker Al Moin, director of RAB Legal and Media Wing, said RAB personnel fire only for self-defence.
"Shootouts took place in the past seven months. Terrorists also got injured in retaliation. But they did not die as before. Sanctions are not related to our self-defence," he added.
Prominent human rights defender Md Nur Khan Liton believes there is no reason to think that people will not fall victim to the law again until the government repeals the DSA.
"With the election approaching, it will be clearer whether the DSA cases are decreasing or increasing," he told The Business Standard.
"They [govt] are maintaining caution for now as the international communities are raising questions. But it cannot be said they [govt] gave up completely," he added.