A lawyer in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka is facing pressure to either withdraw a sexual harassment case or be jailed, after the man she accused of groping her sued her for online defamation, saying the accusation jeopardized his appointment as an assistant court judge.
Zaira, who asked for a pseudonym to protect her court case, had already been jailed for six days in March, along with her husband, sister, and friend, after her alleged harasser Paran Shah, also a lawyer, filed charges against them under the country’s Digital Security Act (DSA) over a post Zaira made in a private Facebook Messenger group chat in which she questioned Shah’s appointment in light of the sexual abuse he inflicted on her.
Out on bail as her own trial continues, Zaira risks being imprisoned for five years if she loses her case, which highlights the draconian nature of the DSA and how it can be weaponised in a country where disparities in the enforcement of laws are common.
During Zaira’s trial last week, the Dhaka court informed her of the condition Shah attached to his accusation – he would drop the DSA charge if she withdrew her sexual harassment case against him. “I refused,” Zaira told VICE World News. “There are pressures on me and my family to give in, but I will not compromise. I am ready to go to jail again to protect my dignity.”
Zaira in December 2020 accused Shah of groping her while they were both on a bus, and Shah was arrested for violating the law against cruelty to women and children. He posted bail three days later. Then in December 2021, Shah was appointed an assistant judge by the law ministry. Activists and media protested and drew attention to his sexual harassment case, prompting the ministry to put the appointment on hold until Shah’s case is resolved.
Women in Bangladesh are finding it increasingly difficult to find protection under its laws meant for women to be able to speak out against sexual violence. Photo: Munir Uz zaman / AFP
Observing these events, Zaira commented in the private group chat with some 15 members: “How can a sexual harasser ensure women are getting justice?” Zaira said that one of the members took a screenshot of her message and shared it with Shah, who then used it to build a DSA defamation case against Zaira. He filed it in December 2021, a year since the groping incident.
In Shah’s complaint, seen by VICE World News, he claimed that Zaira’s accusation of sexual harassment was just a tussle over a bus seat, and that it sabotaged his prestigious appointment. He said Zaira’s group chat message not only defamed him but also insulted the official Bangladesh judicial service that appointed him.
Shah could not be reached by VICE World News for a comment, but he is quoted by The Daily Star as saying, “Whoever will share the post will be made an accused.” Zaira said her husband, sister and friend were falsely implicated because they weren’t even part of that Facebook group.
The DSA, passed into law four years ago, has been described as having “vague and overbroad provisions” that criminalise legitimate forms of expression online, while giving law enforcement agencies excessive punitive powers.
Countries in South Asia often lack laws to protect women against sexual violence and harassment, and if they have any, they tend to be toothless. Meanwhile, vaguely-worded defamation laws are increasingly being used by those accused of harassment to silence – even punish – women, especially for their online posts.
A report published by the International Press Institute says the DSA rarely offers safety to Bangladeshi women, who routinely face abuse and harassment online. Taqbir Huda, the advocacy lead for the Gender Justice and Diversity Programme at Brac, an international development organisation, told VICE World News that the DSA contains no provision on gender-based violence or online harassment of women.
The country already has laws meant to protect women but are, instead, weak and biased against women.
Huda added that Zaira’s case is unusual. “It is not common to see women being accused under this law in such a way,” said Huda, noting the peculiarity of Zaira’s predicament. However, it is common for people in power to use the DSA to go after their opponents.
Last year, Amnesty International found that the majority of accusers in DSA cases were top government officials and their supporters, as in Zaira’s case.
The next hearing is set for May 22, but Zaira worries her bail might be cancelled anytime. “Despite this, I will not accept the terms of this false counter case,” she said. “I hope my resolve is a message to this society, where girls want to speak up against the unspeakable. For the future of such cases, I will not back down.”
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