Last week, 18 November, the government of Bangladesh ordered ISPs to ban Facebook and other social networks in Bangladesh after the Supreme Court upheld the death sentences of two men convicted of war crimes during the independence struggle against Pakistan in 1971.
Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid face imminent execution.
They were convicted of genocide and rape by a special war crimes tribunal.
Officials at the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission said that Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Viber and WhatsApp services were all blocked.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina hinted at the move a week ago, citing security reasons. Confirming the ban, Sarowar Alam, an official of the nation’s Internet regulatory authority BTRC said, “The government has decided to suspend the operation of six social networking platforms.”
A former minister, Chowdhury is a member of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the most senior leader from the party to be sentenced for crimes against humanity.
Two years ago, the tribunal found him guilty of nine out of 23 charges including genocide, arson and persecuting people on religious and political grounds.
Chowdhury, 66, denies all the charges. His family alleges that he has been tortured while in custody and that his health has deteriorated.
Mujahid, 64, is the secretary-general of Jamaat-e-Islami and an influential figure within the party. He was sentenced to death in July 2013.
Critics of Mujahid say he was responsible for the killings of a number of pro-independence Bangladeshi leaders and intellectuals.
He strongly denies the allegations but the tribunal found him guilty of five charges, including abduction and murder.
Jamaat-e-Islami has called for a general strike on Thursday to protest the court’s decision.
While the government says war crimes trials are necessary to bring murderers to justice, the opposition says they have been a tool to persecute them.
Human rights groups have criticised the war crimes tribunal, saying it does not meet international standards.
Jamaat-e-Islami called a nationwide strike to protest against the court’s decision, declaring Mujahid’s original trial “farcical” and “aimed at eliminating” the party’s leadership.
The tribunal has divided the country, with the opposition branding its trials a sham aimed at eliminating their leaders rather than meting out justice.
International rights groups and legal experts have also criticised it, saying its procedures fall short of international standards.
Internet users bypass ban
There was also no Internet connection in Bangladesh for more than an hour on Wednesday when the ban was implemented, according to Dyn Research site. BTRC blames a “misunderstanding” for the Internet blackout as the government directives only asked to block some specific services. However, a good number of Internet users in the country showed up on Facebook – once the Internet was restored – and posted comments informing people on how to bypass the government’s ban on the social media network.
How effective are such bans?
In recent months, Bangladesh has seen a number of attacks on secularist bloggers, publishers and foreign nationals carried out by suspected religious fundamentalists. Four atheist bloggers have been killed for their writings criticizing Islam. A few days ago, “Islamic State” claimed responsibility for the killing of two foreigners in the country. Given these developments, blocking Facebook and some apps won’t help improve the security situation, say online security experts.
Almas Zaman, a cyber-security expert who has worked with the police, told DW he thought blocking Facebook and other apps “is a completely poor solution to address security concerns.”
“Anyone can access those online services with a Proxy or Virtual Private Network (VPN) installed even on their phones,” he wrote from Dhaka.