Shahidul Alam: Caught in the Crossfire of Bangladesh’s Fledgling Democracy
October 30, 2018
How do you persuade a government to release a prisoner, however wrongfully incarcerated, if it doesn’t want to cooperate?
Thousands of signatures, tweets, Instagram and Facebook posts. Dozens of articles. Then there are the rallies: from Kathmandu to New York, from Rome to New Delhi, London to Mumbai. Week by week, hundreds of people are gathering in public spaces to protest against the incarceration in Dhaka, Bangladesh, of photographer, journalist, teacher and activist Shahidul Alam.
Among the most headline-grabbing initiatives is Wasfia Nazreen’s sky-high stunt. The mountaineer and social activist — the first Bangladeshi to climb the Seven Summits — flew over Manhattan in an airplane trailing a banner that read “Free Shahidul Alam. Free our teachers.” Another high-profile intervention was made by artist Tania Bruguera, who was herself locked up in her native Cuba after she offended the state censors, and recently devoted her Tate Modern exhibition in London to a display of Alam’s photographs. “What keeps you going when you’re in prison,” Bruguera told me, “are your principles. And the support of others around you.”
Prestigious voices raised in Alam’s cause include Arundhati Roy, Sharon Stone, Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky, Anish Kapoor, Akraam Khan and Steve McQueen. The flame shows no sign of dimming. A recent project in the UK by a London visual arts organization Autograph ABP, the Northern Centre of Photography at the University of Sunderland and Alam’s own gallery in Dhaka, Drik, has brought about a mass exhibition of A Struggle for Democracy — Alam’s photo-story about Bangladeshi resistance to the dictatorial regime of General Ershad — to no fewer than 50 venues across the UK.
The bravest campaigners are in Bangladesh itself. As I write, the Bangladeshi newspapers are reporting a demonstration on Alam’s behalf by photographers in Dhaka. The protesters have gathered on Dhaka University campus in front of Raju Bhaskarja, a sculpture that represents the resistance of students to political terror.
As they stand there, holding up banners calling for their colleague’s release, they also risk ending up behind bars. The Bangladeshi government is terrified by dissent. Alam was arrested hours after giving an interview to Al Jazeera on August 5, 2018. At the time, Dhaka was in the grip of student protests ostensibly triggered by the capital’s chaotic traffic. However, when the interviewer asked Alam if other factors motivated the dissatisfaction, he responded with a devastating critique of the Awami League government that encompassed corruption, brutality and their lack of mandate. The main opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, boycotted the last elections in 2009. Their leader, Begum Khaleda Zia, is now in prison herself.
Within hours, Alam was arrested by the Detective Branch, a notoriously brutal force. That night he was tortured. Beaten, blindfolded, obliged to walk up and down stairs with weights on his head, threatened with waterboarding, he was told that his partner, Rahnuma Ahmed, an author and activist, was at risk. He was accused of being a Mossad agent and a child trafficker. The next morning, when Alam was produced in court, he was barefoot, limping, dragged brutally by his guards. Yet he shouted out details of his ordeal, adding that his torturers had washed the bloodstains from his punjabi and made him wear it again.
The footage, recorded on an iPhone, was devastating. His niece, Sofia Karim, says she found it “unbearable to watch.” She recalls a “sense of terror” at seeing Alam — who is like a father to her in many ways — “captured, tormented, made [into] a spectacle.”
Alam’s circle of family, friends, colleagues and students “went into an adrenaline-filled fight-or-flight mode where our first instinct was to stop him being hurt further,” recalls Karim. Within hours an international campaign had mobilized on his behalf. In India, close to 500 artists published a petition calling for his release. Journalists in Mumbai, Chittagong and Kathmandu held vigils outside their press clubs. A letter signed by no fewer than 13 Nobel Prize laureates was published. Social media was swamped by tweets, messages and posts.
The mainstream media stories started to flow: The Hindu, The New York Times, BBC, to name but a few. And always, the dauntless reporters in Dhaka at papers such as The Daily Star and the Dhaka Tribune who usually broke the most reliable news first. Forr those of us caught up in the campaign, it was to their sites we turned first every morning.
Missing in Bangladesh
It was crucial to keep Alam in the public eye because it is easy to go missing in Bangladesh. Since the Awami League took power in 2009, Bangladeshi-based human rights monitor Odhikar has counted 320 enforced “disappearances,” with 50 of the victims discovered murdered and dozens remaining lost. In 2018 so far, Odhikar reports 58 disappearances. Those targeted include members of the opposition, academics, diplomats and journalists. Reporter Utpal Das disappeared in October 2017 while working on a story about the Awami League. He resurfaced two months later having been held captive by unknown abductors.
The danger is intensifying. Last year, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances called on the Awami League to cease the crimes. There’s little doubt the government is to blame. For years now reports have circulated that the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a police counterterrorism unit, is murdering citizens who have fallen foul of the state. In April last year, a Swedish radio station broadcast a clandestine interview with a senior RAB officer in which he admitted that his force routinely kills people, then disposes of the bodies.
Such extra-judicial killings are common knowledge. Odikhar’s report documents 403 such deaths from January to September 2018 alone. Of these, there is evidence that five were tortured to death while in state custody, and two were shot. But an astonishing 396, say police, were unwittingly “caught in crossfire” during their arrest.
Shahidul Alam knows about crossfire. In 2010 he created an exhibition with that title whose images bore witness to the RAB killings. Hours before opening at Drik gallery, the show was shut down by the police, an act of censorship that provoked protests in the streets. Alam applied successfully to the high court to get the show reopened. He even managed to present it to the foreign minister of Bangladesh when she visited the gallery.
Alam’s blend of courage, ingenuity and integrity explains both why he is in prison and why his treatment has triggered such outrage. “The current Awami League government is increasingly intolerant of anyone who criticizes its policies and practices,” observes David Lewis, a South Asia specialist and professor of social policy and development at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “But Alam is particularly threatening to them because, as a journalist in Bangladesh, his reputation and commitment are second to none.”
At home in Bangladesh
Born in 1955, Alam grew up alongside his country as it established its foundations after the 1971 war of liberation. His family was educated, yet far from wealthy. As a student in London, he paid his way by cleaning toilets and working on building sites. Those experiences fostered his innate sense of social equality. As a boy, he was so moved by the sight of a servant sitting outside the doorway so he could glimpse the television, he persuaded his parents to allow the man to join the family in the sitting room. Over the decades, he has covered every aspect of his country’s evolution including RAB squads, catastrophic floods, lethal garment-factory fires and the Rohingya crisis.
His images have been shown in publications that include The New York Times and Time magazine, as well as the likes of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and London’s Tate Modern. But as Alisha Sett points out in a luminous article for Himalmagazine, “In Bangladesh, it is Alam’s material interventions and constant writing in the press, his vigilance against injustice, which makes him known to the wider public. … It is the fact that he played a role in bringing email to his fellow citizens, was at the forefront of grasping the digital revolution, has opened exhibition after exhibition at Drik gallery pointing to taboo subjects and human-rights violations in Bangladesh, and that he counts himself as a social activist first and an artist second.”
Alam didn’t need to base himself in Bangladesh. His UK visa allows him to remain in Britain permanently. That he came back to his country speaks volumes for his commitment. “Shahidul would often admonish us for leading a comfortable existence in the UK when Bangladesh needed our efforts so much more,” recalls Sofia Karim. “He said we were part of the brain drain. ‘When are you going to start doing something for Bangladesh?’ he would say.”
“Many times, when I would visit Dhaka, I would catch him early in the morning, in a moment of rare stillness, before he went out. He would be staring out of the window of his flat, looking out at Dhaka, at the sun rising, drinking it all in. I think he always saw Bangladesh as home. I once asked him, of all the countries he had visited, which was his favorite? He responded instantly: ‘Bangladesh.’”
Bangladesh is ostensibly a democracy. But jailing Alam has been a breeze for the prime minster, Sheikh Hasina. Her weapon was Section 57 of the Information and Communications Technology Act. Since 2013, when the act was amended to make it more punitive, around 700 cases have been filed. From March to late July this year alone, 23 Bangladeshi journalists have been sued under the section 57. Those found guilty face between seven to 14 years in prison. Much of the power of Section 57 depends on its vague wording. People can be arrested, for example, for writing online speech that “hurts the image of the nation.”
Yet even Section 57’s catch-all vocabulary was insufficient to ensure Alam’s imprisonment. In an article in India-based journal The Wire, David Bergman (who discloses that he is the husband of one of Alam’s lawyers) reveals how the First Information Report through which the police justify their detention tampers with Alam’s statements. For example it includes the phrases “female students are taken and then disappearing,” and “the present government must be overthrown.” Nowhere does Alam ever make these comments.
Since Alam was arrested, Sheikh Hasina has introduced a punitive new law, the Digital Security Act. It introduces a jail sentence of up to 14 years for spreading “propaganda” about Bangladesh’s 1971 War of Independence from Pakistan, and a 10-year sentence for positing information that “ruins communal harmony or creates instability or disorder or disturbs or is about to disturb the law and order situation.”
A statement by EU member states, the European Union delegation and the heads of mission of Norway and Switzerland say the act unduly restricts the freedom of expression and the freedom of the media and undermines judicial procedural guarantees. In Dhaka, meanwhile, editors formed a human chain in front of the National Press Club to demand amendments. Sheikh Hasina’s response to the dissatisfaction revealed how little comprehension she had of the role of the media in a democracy: “Journalism is surely not for increasing conflict, or for tarnishing the image of the country,” she said.
On Facebook, Alam’s supporters are posting new initiatives. There are pictures of Our Struggle for Democracy gracing galleries at Manchester Metropolitan University. An image of Rahnuma Ahmed shows her proud and vital in a scarlet sari holding up her purple camera phone alongside the protesting photographers in Dhaka. Meanwhile, an email asks for small contributions for blankets for Alam’s fellow prisoners.
It is typical of Alam that he is organizing campaigns to help others from his cell. Last week, he asked supporters to chip into a fund for new lungis. “Many prisoners have only one,” he told Ahmed on one her visits.
Such evidence of his still-vibrant spirit buoy the morale of Alam’s cadre. But the situation could not be more uncertain. On September 11, Alam had bail denied to him by the sessions court. Since then, his petitions have been repeatedly adjourned and postponed. A week ago, the government was given seven days to justify its failure to grant bail, but that deadline has passed. Petition for bail will be heard again on Sunday 21 October. No one has much hope that it will not once again be postponed.
Alam is not alone in his Orwellian plight. This is a catastrophic era for journalism. I am reminded of lines by the American radical American poet Adrienne Rich from her long poem Midnight Salvage: “The trade names follow trade / the translators stopped at passport control: Occupation: no such designation — / Journalist, maybe spy?”
All week, headlines have focused on the murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in his country’s embassy in Turkey. Based in the US, renowned for his critiques of the Saudi government, Khashoggi appears to have been killed by a Saudi Arabian hit squad when visited the consulate in Istanbul to acquire marriage documents.
His murder is the latest in a wave of journalists’ deaths and incarcerations that underscore that speaking truth to power is increasingly dangerous. Other reporters to have lost their lives recently include Viktoria Marinova, a Bulgarian TV presenter who was raped and killed on October 6. Two more investigative journalists were killed in the EU over the last year, Slovak Jan Kuciak (who was shot dead in February alongside his girlfriend), and Maltese journalist and blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia, renowned for her exposés of political corruption, who was blown up in her car in October 2017.
Their deaths are the tip of a global iceberg of repression. In the scenarios outlined above, regimes are so incensed by investigations that they resort to murder. Often, however, as in Bangladesh, they employ punitive security legislation to silence the media. Other countries to use such laws include Turkey, Nepal, China, Vietnam, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran and Myanmar — the latter had recently jailed two Reuters journalists reporting on the Rohingya crisis as spies.
“Of the 262 journalists behind bars last year, 194 were convicted on ‘anti-state’ charges,” reports Robert Mahoney, deputy executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “In the name of fighting terrorism and subversion, governments have classified independent and critical reporting as false news or propaganda.”
Sofia’s Facebook feed includes images from Mexico City where, at the Documentary Film Festival, multiple Shahiduls appear to springing from the ground around a banyan tree. These masks have been planted by Trisha Ziff, documentary filmmaker and curator of photography. She says: “When Shahidul came to Mexico he spoke and sang of the Banyan so eloquently … at least for now his image will be reunited with his trees, and when he is free … he will be able to return to his beloved trees.”
What can be done?
Today, and indeed every day, the question is, What can be done? How do you persuade a government to release a prisoner, however wrongfully incarcerated, if it doesn’t want to cooperate?
At the beginning it was hoped that a mixture of local and international pressure would make an incontrovertible case for Alam’s freedom. In September, Alam’s case was raised during the United Nations General Assembly in New York. During a panel discussion entitled Press Behind Bars, Committee to Protect Journalists executive director, Joel Simon, addressed Alam’s plight alongside those of journalists jailed in Egypt, Kyrgyzstan and Myanmar. He stated that Alam’s case was “rife with due process violations.” He also quoted a report by the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights, which concluded that “the entire criminal process against Dr Alam has been only a means of intimidation and retaliation and a gross subversion of the Bangladesh justice system.”
Simon also took the opportunity to chide the UN itself, which he says has failed repeatedly to engage with the issue of journalists who are wrongfully imprisoned. This failure came about, according to Simon, because “governments are directly responsible for these grave abuses, and the UN has a culture of rarely calling out its members.”
“Few countries have been held to account for their repressive practices,” he continued. “One of the reasons is that key international bodies like the United Nations and its member states follow arcade diplomatic protocol and refuse to name names. Even leading democracies abide by this absurd custom. Why are they afraid to name names?”
Asked by Fair Observer to respond to Simon’s remarks, a UN spokesperson replied that the UN Secretariat had been “very vocal about press freedoms and frequently name[s] particular states for the treatment of journalists.” The spokesperson drew attention to Secretary-General António Guterres’s description of the imprisonment of the two Reuters journalists in Myanmar as “not acceptable.” Guterres also called for a full investigation into Khashoggi’s case.
But are such measured words enough when realpolitik so often plays out to a very different script? During the UN General Assembly, Sheikh Hasina received two humanitarian awards, one from the Inter Press Service News Agency and the other from the Global Hope Coalition, both of which honored her for sheltering Rohingya refugees who had flooded across the Bangladesh border from Myanmar. Her generosity toward the Rohingya undoubtedly played a part in encouraging UN members when, a couple of weeks ago, they voted Bangladesh onto the UN Human Rights Council. There’s no doubt that the council is a flawed body. It is regularly criticized for welcoming members — which have included Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Burundi — with atrocious human rights records. If a country is elected to the council, its hand is inevitably strengthened in foreign relations. But does Sheikh Hasina’s compassion toward the refugees mean the repression she is inflicting on her own people should be overlooked?
Mahoney doesn’t think so. Asked if he is disappointed that when countries such as Bangladesh are elected to the council he replies bluntly: “Yes, of course. It undermines the credibility of the council on certain issues and gives repressive or authoritarian states a platform from which to run interference.”
Sunday morning in London. Sunday afternoon in Dhaka. Here in the UK, autumn is a Keatsian dream of honey light and gilded leaves. In Dhaka, my global weather app tells me its 33˚C, and there’s a big yellow sun. It’s also bail-hearing day for Shahidul Alam. Again. As I walk under the towering, ancient trees in Hyde Park, I check my phone periodically for news. Finally, there it is. The hearing has been postponed until Thursday.
“We see the bail petition hearing being inexplicably deferred time and time again and can only think that justice has collapsed,” writes Sofia, in a rare moment of undiluted fury. “He is imprisoned at will. How do you deal with that?”
Meanwhile, the international media remain locked onto the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Having denied that they had any knowledge of his fate, the Saudi rulers have finally admitted that Khashoggi is dead. Killed in a “fist fight” that got out of hand. Amnesty International call the account a “whitewash of an appalling assassination.”
US President Donald Trump has declared the murder “the worst cover-up ever.” But he has also stated that sanctions, in particular canceling the arms deals that are enormously lucrative for the US “would hurt us more than it hurts them.” In the UK, Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab concurred: “We are not … terminating our relationship with Saudi Arabia, not just because of the huge number of British jobs that depend on it but also because if you exert influence over your partners you need to be able to talk to them.”
This is realpolitik at its most brutal. When Khashoggi’s murder became public knowledge, it looked briefly as if Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) had destroyed his international reputation. Now, however, it seems that the prince is too powerful to be punished. “This is such a brazen attack that people think it can’t be just business as usual,” observes Mahoney. But he also points out that all too often global economic and political considerations eclipse ethical qualms. “This story involves the new leadership of Saudi Arabia which President Trump has endorsed repeatedly. The strategic importance of Saudi Arabia to the US as a bulwark against Iran is also in play here. Saudi Arabia is also fighting IS and is a huge market for US arms and defense equipment.”
Bangladesh is still a poor country: It ranks 43rd in terms of its nominal GDP. But its economy is growing. Goldman Sachs ranked it among its Next 11 — countries that could become among the world’s largest economies in the 21st century. Could that potential for trade and investment allied to Sheikh Hasina’s identity as protector of the Rohingya and gatekeeper against Islamic terror, bolstered of course by her admission to the UN human rights council, see her escape serious international censure, just as MBS appears to be doing?
“I hope this is a turning point and that people recognise a line has been crossed,” replies David Lewis in an email. “Human rights abuses have been growing steadily for several years, but [Alam’s] is a high profile case and the government may have underestimated international support for such a high-profile figure.
In London, Monday morning brings scrubbed blue skies and dazzling sunlight. I open my emails to find a message from Sofia. Tomorrow morning, there will be another intervention on Shahidul’s behalf by Tania Bruguera at Tate Modern. I look down my list of messages. Sofia, as usual, appears to have been writing to various people on and off all night. How does she bear the strain?
“By just pushing and pushing in spite of it,” she writes to me. “By trying to carry on his work for him. He worked so hard for so long while we sat back. Now finally, we, this huge big family that are supporting him, can take on some of the load. It’s time for us to repay some of his sacrifice.”
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