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400 Indian Artists Sign Petition to Release Photographer Arrested in Bangladesh

After speaking on AlJazeera, Shahidul Alam was arrested under section 57 of the International Communication and Technology Act for reputedly spreading anti-government propaganda.

Shahidul Alam (image by and courtesy of Tom Hatlestad)

400 Indian photographers, filmmakers, and artists have released a public statement condemning the Bangladeshi state’s abduction of photographer Shahidul Alam in his home in Dhaka, Bangladesh late Sunday night. The August 5 abduction closely followed an Al Jazeera segment aired that evening, in which Alam spoke about the Bangladeshi government’s reaction to student-led protests opposing dangerous road conditions. Alam additionally condemned government-sanctioned, “looting of the banks, the gagging of the media, the extrajudicial killings, disappearings, bribery, and corruption.”

Shahidul Alam discussing student-led protests in Al Jazeera segment that preceded his arrest. You can watch the segment in full on YouTube. (screenshot of Al Jazeera segment)

The recent protests began in animpassioned opposition to perilous road safety conditions in Bangladesh, aggravated by transportation mafia with links to government ministers, following traffic-related deaths of two students. The teenagers were killed on July 29 by a speeding bus; protesters urge the government to reform treacherous road conditions throughout the country.

The demonstrations have lasted over a week, with tens of thousands of
protesters paralyzing a city of 18 million. Police have wielded tear gas, rubber bullets, and batons against participants. On his Twitter, Alam reported he and protesters were assaulted by government-supporters brandishing sticks. Dr. Abdus Shabbir told Agence France-Presse the emergency ward had treated over 115 student injuries as of this weekend. Al Jazeera reports that authorities ceased mobile internet across Bangladesh “in an effort to contain the violence and what they is [sic] misinformation online.” The government has also closed educational institutions.

Alam is the founder of the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, a school of photography and multimedia journalism. He has been actively documenting the protests, streaming videos on Facebook live over the weekend and sharing content on his Twitter account throughout the course of the protests. In his video interview with Al Jazeera, he said:

“Today the police specifically asked for help from armed goons to combat unarmed students demanding safe roads. The government has miscalculated. It thought that fear and repression would be enough but you cannot tame an entire nation in this manner.”

Alam was arrested only hours after this segment aired under pretenses of “provocative comments.” Around 20 unidentified men in plainclothes burst into the 63-year-old’s home around 11:30 pm local time on August 5 and abducted him by force.When he was finally produced at court a day later, after a national
outcry over his arrest, Al Jazeera reporter Tanvir Chowdhury recounts
the photographer barefoot and visibly limping.

Shahidul Alam shouting to journalists that he had been tortured in custody, while being produced in front of Court the day after abduction. (screenshot of New Age video footage)

Alam has been charged under section 57 of the International Communication and Technology Act for spreading anti-government propaganda and will remain under police custody for seven days.

According to Amnesty International, Section 57 is being used to charge any individual who has documented the various protests and attacks on social media platforms. “These people are now being tracked by security forces with the help of Bangladesh Chhatra League, the student front of the Awami League, the ruling political party in Bangladesh,” they wrote in a document released today. “The ICT Act, which carries a minimum sentence of seven years, is seen as the principal instrument to muzzle critical voices in the country. Its vaguely worded clauses empower the authorities to prosecute people ‘in the interest of sovereignty, integrity or security of Bangladesh’ or if they are deemed to ‘prejudice the image of the State’ or ‘hurt religious belief.'” Amnesty says the law is being used to bring “criminal charges against journalists for simply doing their work.” They point out that in December 2016 journalist Nazmul Huda was arrested, viciously beaten in custody, and then charged under the ICT Act for covering protests by garment workers outside the capital Dhaka.

According to reports from New Age Bangladesh, the photographer was presented before the court, barefoot, for a 30-minute hearing where it was originally requested he spend 10 days remanded in police custody. Alam was accused of posting “imaginary propaganda against the government” on his Facebook profile that “triggered panic among public and caused deterioration of law and order.”

Alam told the court, “I was hit [in custody]. I bled.”

He said that when he opened his door late Sunday night, a young girl asked if he was Shahidul — when he confirmed, unidentified men stormed the apartment. He says under police custody he remained handcuffed through the night and was verbally abused and interrogated about his international success as a photojournalist.

The Hindu reports that police officials taped over CCTV cameras nearby and prohibited photography of the arrest.

After his remand was sentenced by a lower court, the High Court bench of Justice Syed Muhammad Dastagir Husain and Justice Md Iqbal Kabir have requested that officials release Alam to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University for an analysis of his health conditions. This follows a petition submitted to the High Court by Alam’s wife and the anthopologist author of Tortured Truths, Rahnuma Ahmed, to send the man to the hospital for medical analysis and treatment.

According to the Dhaka Tribune, under “the first information report, filed by DB (north division) Inspector Mehedi Hasan with the Ramna police station, Shahidul was charged under the ICT Act because he used electronic media to instigate disorder in the country and spread fabricated information and rumours via social media. The FIR also mentioned that his remarks were aimed at worsening the law and order situation, tarnishing the image of the country and hurting the sentiments of students by spreading rumours.” Police confiscated three mobile phones during the arrest.

Police official Moshiur Rahman told Agence France-Press on Monday, “He has been brought to our office early this morning. We are interrogating him for giving false information to different media and for provocative comments. And he could not give proper answers. He admitted that these are his personal opinion [sic].”

The court rejected a bail plea submitted by Alam’s lawyer, renowned
human rights lawyer Barrister Sara Hossain.

Renowned Indian photojournalist Raghu Rai has penned a letter addressing Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina urging the government to release the photographer, saying, “Bangladesh is a country of poets, writers, musicians and some of them migrated to India during the partition. Our bond is deep not only culturally but spiritually as well. He concludes his plea. ‘May I humbly request and plead not to punish the honest, the truthful representative of the youth. As the spirit of democracy — the truth must survive for itself that kindles the light in heart of millions of your countrymen and many of us.’”

A public statement condemning the Bangladeshi state’s decision was released and signed by 400 Indian photographers, filmmakers, and artists. They explain their support of Alam, and write:

We demand his immediate, unconditional and honourable release from detention. We totally refute the allegation that Shahidul Alam committed any crime by highlighting the utterly reasonable and peaceful protests by schoolchildren and young people in Dhaka against the lethal malpractices in the transport sector that have resulted in unnecessary deaths. Legitimate criticism of, and disagreement with Government action is the inalienable right of every citizen in a democracy, and if that is what Shahidul Alam is being prosecuted for then it is a worrying sign that the state in Bangladesh is slipping towards autocracy.

Shahidul Alam did what any citizen with a conscience would have done. And we stand resolutely by him. He has used his voice and his lens as an instrument that intervenes with precision and compassion in a situation that requires urgent attention.

We note with concern the reports that indicate that when Shahidul Alam was produced for custody he showed signs of physical harassment that could amount to torture. Right now Shahidul Alam’s physical safety is of the paramount importance and we believe that this can be guaranteed only by his immediate release from detention.

In an August 6 United States press briefing, a UN deputy spokesperson spoke on the protests, saying, “We are deeply concerned about the reports of violence and call on all for calm. The concerns expressed by youth about road safety are legitimate and a solution is needed for a mega city like Dhaka.” Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have demanded Alam’s immediate release.

The Bangladeshi government has attempted to quell the dissent by considering new policy that will sentence drivers involved in fatal traffic accidents to
stronger penalties, as opposed to the current maximum three-year prison sentence.

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