To mark the Day of the Imprisoned Writer on 15 November, PEN highlighted the case of the award-winning Bangladeshi photographer, writer and activist Shahidul Alam, who was arrested in Dhaka on 5 August 2018. Shortly before his detention, Alam had given an interview to the news agency Al Jazeera in which he criticised the government’s handling of student-led demonstrations calling for better road safety laws after two teenagers were killed by a speeding bus. The government responded to the protests by firing tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowds of demonstrators, injuring hundreds.
On 6 August, Alam, who is sixty-three, was brought before a lower court in Dhaka, accused of ‘making provocative comments’ and ‘giving false information’ to the media under Section 57 of Bangladesh’s draconian Information Communications Technology Act. This section of the law has been widely criticised for restricting freedom of expression and because it is frequently used to arrest dissidents. It has recently been replaced by the Digital Security Act, which continues to criminalise free speech and, according to Human Rights Watch, ‘is a license for wide-ranging suppression of critical voices’.
On 20 November, Alam was finally released on bail, his applications having previously been declined several times. He claims that he was tortured during his detention. The government denies this but has failed to allow an independent investigation into his allegations. If convicted, Alam faces a minimum of seven and a maximum of fourteen years in prison. PEN believes that his arrest and detention in the face of international pressure and a shortage of evidence were profoundly unjust.
Alam is the founder and managing director of the Drik Picture Library and the creator of the Patshala South Asian Media Academy, a photography school in Dhaka that has trained hundreds of photographers. He is also the founder of the Chobi Mela photography festival. His books include The Birth Pangs of a Nation and My Journey as a Witness. As a photographer and writer, he has covered major events in Bangladesh, including political upheavals and natural disasters. He has campaigned for justice for victims of war crimes and besieged bloggers. In 2014, he received the Shilpakala Padak award for his contribution to Bangladeshi culture in the field of photography. In June, he was announced as winner of this year’s Lucie Humanitarian Award in acknowledgement of his exceptional contribution to photography and the defence of human rights.
PEN International and PEN Bangladesh are disturbed by a spate of allegations being made against Alam in the press and on social media, which misrepresent his record as a human rights defender. Given the Bangladeshi state’s previous failure to protect thinkers, writers and bloggers, PEN is concerned that the spread of unfounded allegations is putting Alam at risk of violent attack. I have previously written in these pages about the murders of Nazimuddin Samad, a 28-year-old law student and blogger who was attacked with machetes and then shot at a busy intersection in Dhaka by three assailants on a motorcycle (LR, May 2016), and Ananta Bijoy Das, a journalist and blogger who was hacked to death by religious extremists in the northeastern city of Sylhet (LR, June 2015). The murder of dissident writers, journalists and students in Bangladesh, a majority Muslim country with a sizeable Hindu minority, continues with impunity.
Readers might like to send appeals expressing concern that Shahidul Alam was arrested solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to free expression; calling for all charges against him to be dropped immediately and unconditionally; demanding an independent investigation into his allegations of torture and that those found responsible are held to account; voicing unease at the implementation of the Digital Security Act recently passed by the Bangladeshi parliament, which continues to criminalise peaceful speech; and reminding the government of its obligations to secure the right to freedom of expression, including peaceful criticism of political authorities, under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bangladesh is a state party.
Appeals to be addressed to:
His Excellency Nazmul Quaunine
High Commission for Bangladesh
28 Queens Gate, London SW7 5JA
Fax: 020 7581 7477 | Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed
Old Sangsad Bhaban
Tejgaon, Dhaka-1215, Bangladesh
Fax: +880 2 8113 244 | Email: email@example.com
Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, Minister of Home Affairs
Abdul Gani Road, Dhaka-1205, Bangladesh
Fax: +880 2 913 3498 | Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mohammad Javed Patwary, Inspector General of Police
6 Phoenix Road, Fulbaria Dhaka-1000, Bangladesh
Fax: +880 2 712 5840 | Email: email@example.com