Shahidul Alam imprisoned another month

A Dhaka court has set 11 September for hearing a bail petition which means that the renowned photographer will be held for at least one more month. Rumana Hashem reports

Journalists protest against the arrest of Bangladeshi photojournalist Shahidul Alam and the recent attack on Indian photojournalist Pravin Indrekar, at the Press Club in Mumbai, India, 7 August 2018. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas

Today Bangladeshis celebrate a national holiday in remembrance of the Prime Minister’s father, while a globally renowned photographer and activist Shahidul Alam is held in one of the country’s prisons. The Prime Minister’s father was himself a victim of repression. An advocate of socialism, Bangabondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – or the ‘father of the nation’ – was assassinated during a coup d'état in 1975.

Shahidul Alam was awarded Bangladesh’s highest honour, the Shilpakala Padak Award in 2014 for making contributions to Bangledeshi arts and culture. But his handling by the Bangladeshi administration this month shook up the whole world.

Twelve days ago, on the night of 5 August, Shahidul was abducted from his home in Dhaka by 30-35 men claiming to be from the Detective Branch (DB) police. On the following day the photographer was taken to the Dhaka Metropolitan Magistrate’s Court, and shown as arrested in a case filed by the DB police under the controversial Section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, meaning he could face up to 14 years prison, for making online speech which ‘hurts the image of the nation’. He was remanded to DB police custody for seven days which would end on 14 August.

DB police custody is a special prison enabling extra-judicial proxy detention. In Bangladesh it means a dangerous place and a centre where people can be tortured to their last breath. Shahidul was reportedly tortured in DB custody, and his family was prevented from visiting him before 8 August. Despite a court order to halt his remand on 6 August, his medical checks were delayed for three days. He had only been briefly transferred to hospital on 8 August.

The authorities claimed that the delay was paperwork related. After a few medical checks, he was immediately taken back to the DB office, for interrogation that same day.

Meanwhile a group of ruling party activists and supporters embarked on a social media campaign accusing Shahidul and his family of supporting the opposition Bangladesh National Party and the pro-Pakistani party, Jamaat-e-Islami.

Cruel posts have been circulating around Facebook and Twitter; many arguing that those demanding Shahidul’s release are either mistaken or immoral. The campaign took a vicious turn on 9 August, following intense protests by students for road safety, and the incredible support of many people for the campaign for the immediate release of Shahidul and jailed student protesters on remand. Malicious posts even demanded cruel punishments for the photographer, such as putting out his eyes so that he could not use his lens to powerfully document events.

The influential Human Rights Forum of Bangladesh held a press conference on 9 August demanding the immediate release of the photographer and all protesters. National and international media have been publishing on the student protests and the detention of Shahidul. Despite this widespread concern, these protests and the condemnation of Shahidul’s treatment have seemingly stoked those seeking to vilify Shahidul and the campaign of misinformation about the student movement.

While Shahidul’s lawyers were preparing for his court hearing, scheduled for Monday 13 August, where they would seek his release from the DB’s custody and ‘remand’, dramatic news broke that Shahidul has been sent straight to prison before the end of the seven-day remand. Neither his lawyer nor his family were at the court hearing, held unexpectedly on Sunday, which denied his lawyers a chance to represent him.

On Monday 13 August, Shahidul’s court hearing was held and his family was somewhat reassured that he has been transferred to the Dhaka Central Jail in Keraniganj where his family was allowed to visit him. But no clear explanation was given as yet about why and how this sudden removal of remand was made possible.

The hurried transfer from the DB custody to the Dhaka Central Jail, as a safer prison, shows that the authorities could not find a better solution to what to do with Shahidul amidst worldwide outrage. The many international expressions of outrage and united actions by all of us may have made this possible.

Intellectuals including US linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, Indian writer Arundhati Roy, Canadian author Naomi Klein and Indian intellectual Vijay Prashad have all spoke out. Alongside week-long protests in Bangladesh, two protests were held outside the Bangladesh High Commission in London and another protest was held in Mexico.

Friday 10 August, an open letter signed by more than 100 individuals and organizations under the banner of Teachers Against Abuse and Torture (TAAT) and the Transnational Friends of Bangladesh called upon the Bangladeshi government to stop torturing and ‘victim-blaming’ the protesters. It accused authorities of ‘making matters worse’ after the recent abduction of Shahidul Alam.

The failure to defend different opinions and freedom of expression is a threat to the very fabric of Bangladeshi democracy. The incident of Shahidul Alam’s arrest was summed up in the joint-statement, as one that ‘begs fundamental questions on citizenship rights and the rule of law’. The statement also criticizes ‘citizens being whisked away and made to disappear’.

Signatories include prominent Bangladeshi and transnational authors, academics, archivists, environmentalists, journalists, poets, photographers and women’s rights campaigners. A separate statement from the British-Bangladeshi lawyers association has also demanded immediate release of Shahidul Alam and all students on remand.

The joint letter by the TAAT allies makes four demands of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina: for immediate release of Dr Shahidul Alam and all those detained protesters; for ensuring justice for both students and journalists; for an independent inquiry into why the officials responsible destroyed property and threatened others, and for urgent inquiry into why the security forces could not act within the bounds of the law.

The situation in Bangladesh is currently dire. Personal vilification of Shahidul Alam and his family members continues. Students on remand have been falling ill and their bail is being denied. Despite the evidence, no one from the ruling party has yet been convicted or even tried, for any of the violent incidents since the 29 July – and instead a photographer and students have been jailed.

On Tuesday, 14 August, a bail petition for photographer Shahidul Alam was filed before a Dhaka court but the court set 11 September for hearing the petition, which means that the photographer will be imprisoned for at least a month. We need to stand united against impunity and continue to demand his immediate release, along with that of all the protesters that have been arrested.

Rumana Hashem is an activist-sociologist and Educator, affiliated to the Centre for Migration, Refugees and Belonging at the University of East London. She founded the Phulbari Solidarity Group and the group Community Women Against Abuse, a secular Bangladeshi women’s organization in Britain.