Pressure is rising on the Bangladesh government from global human rights groups to free acclaimed photographer and social and human rights activist Shahidul Alam, 63, who is in custody after making what were termed provocative comments against the government on the international news channel Al Jazeera.
The arrest rose out of a noisy nine-day protest after a speeding city bus killed two teenage students in front of Dhaka City College on July 29, and injured several more. As other students assembled to protest the killings and demand road safety guidelines for the country, public anger erupted, transforming the demonstration into wider anti-government protests that have raised opposition sentiment in advance of scheduled December national elections.
The protest, observers say, raised questions about growing human rights repression, curtailment of freedom of expression and the rule urban elites should play in Bangladesh’s social justice movements.
Charging that the tumult was fomented by “miscreants” from the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the Islamist Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami and other left-leaning organizations wearing student uniforms, using fake ID's and pretending to be students, the Hasina regime retaliated against the demonstrators on Aug. 5 with police forces and masked youths allegedly attached to the ruling party who pounded the students with batons and rubber bullets and sprayed them with tear gas.
The masked youths, armed with sticks and machetes, also went after journalists covering the action as well. More than 20 reporters and photographers were hurt including Alam, who was also targeted by the goons.
Later, Alam spoke with Al Jazeera’s Dhaka outlet, criticizing the authorities for mismanaging the protest, In the interview, he turned his anger on the government for what he called its failures on various fronts. charging that Sheikh Hasina continues to cling to power by force and that she has lost the moral ground to continue as premier. He called the regime authoritarian and said it would lose a free and fair election.
That apparently was enough for government leaders. When Alam took to the international news channel to condemn the government, Dhaka panicked, believing the popular Alam’s outburst could result in growing resentment against Hasina, which might galvanize the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party for the election in just four months. Footage of the attacks have gone viral on social media as a serious embarrassment to the Awami League.
The photographer was taken from his home in Dhaka on Oct. 5 by more than 25 plainclothes detectives soon after he participated in the Al Jazeera interview.
Alam (above, being arrested) was held incognito for two days with his anthropologist wife Rahnuma Ahmed and other well-wishers unable to get access to him until a high court judge ordered authorities to check his health. Finally after due process he was sent to Dhaka’s central jail.
On his appearance in court, Alam claimed that he had been mentally and physically abused by the police.
Alam leads the acclaimed photo agency Drik as well as the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, a school of photography and multimedia journalism, and is a familiar face for Dhaka-based media outlets. Because of his prominence, his arrest received wide coverage both nationally and internationally.
Ultimately, however, he was booked under the country’s Information Communications Technology Act, which empowers authorities to punish those spreading anti-national messages through electronic media. If found guilty, he could receive up to five years in prison. More than 25 bloggers and journalists have already been prosecuted under the act as the government seeks to curb expression.
Nonetheless, the arrest has awakened an outcry against the Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina, which has become increasingly restrictive.
In addition to local anger, an extraordinary international protest has erupted, demanding that Alam be freed. That includes Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the IFEX network of international organizations, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and hundreds of artists and writers in India.
Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, civil rights campaigner Binayak Sen, California University professor Angela Davis, Abu Dhabi based intellectual Shamoon Zamir, Illinois University professor Nassar Issam and others too numerous to mention also joined the chorus.
Bangladesh must hold parliamentary elections by the end of 2018, the end of the government’s five-year term under Bangladesh’s Westminster parliamentary form of government. The BNP, led by Hasina’s implacable enemy Begum Khaleda Zia, boycotted the last national polls in 2014 because of violence allegedly fomented by the ruling party. Many opposition candidates withdrew from the polls following alleged threats from Awami League leaders.
The New York based Human Rights Watch, while criticizing the government for Alam’s arrest, asked authorities to immediately halt the violence perpetrated by government supporters and respect the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. That has spread to wider concerns, with the regional network of human rights defenders (SAHR) urging the government to cease arbitrary detention and torture as well as attacks on peaceful protestors and those expressing their opinions.
It also demanded a transparent and impartial inquiry into attacks on protestors and journalists during the fracas, with an investigation into the circumstances of Alam’s detention and torture.
Facing the heat, Prime Minister Hasina told reporters that political opponents were using the turmoil to stir up anti-government sentiment as the nation prepared for the next round of polls.
However, Hasina also said harsh punishments (read death penalty) would be pronounced against the callous drivers causing human losses.
Hasina’s son, Sajeeb Wazed Joy, an aspiring Awami leader, said Alam had lied about torture, saying attending doctors had found no injuries. He accused Alam, in front of news cameras during his court appearance, of pretending he had been hurt and found difficulty walking.