A protest against the incarceration of Bangladeshi photojournalist Shahidul Alam is held in front of the United Nations building in New York. Photo: Shamima Khan
A protest against the incarceration of Bangladeshi photojournalist Shahidul Alam is held in front of the United Nations building in New York. Photo: Shamima Khan

Protests over the jailing of renowned Bangladeshi photojournalist Shahidul Alam continue to grow within and beyond the country, which has kept him behind bars for nearly two months in the wake of massive student protests. Last week protesters reached the United Nation General Assembly at New York, where leaders from different countries were meeting for the annual summit.

Alam, an award-winning photojournalist and rights activist, has been in jail since August 5, after an interview on Al Jazeera in which he claimed that the broader context of student-led protests in Bangladesh was pent-up anger at government corruption and misuse of power. The imprisonment of Alam is being seen as a gross violation of human rights and the right to free speech in a year of political turmoil ahead of the country’s national elections likely to be held in December.

“We got told by various quarters that he won’t be let out before the elections, as apparently he ‘speaks too much,’ but the authorities should also understand that the longer he is in there the louder it will get, and it’s directly affecting the image of our country and the government,” said Wasfia Nazreen, a National Geographic Explorer and Bangladesh’s only Seven Summiteer (who has reached all of highest summits of the world’s seven continents).

Dozens of activists joined Alam’s family and friends at a demonstration outside the UN headquarters while Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was addressing the General Assembly last Thursday.

The protest for Alam’s freedom was organized in New York by human-rights groups and journalist associations including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), PEN America, Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among others.

Outside the UN headquarters, the protesters vehemently denounced the imprisonment of Alam. Kerry Kennedy, human-rights activist and daughter of the late US senator Bobby Kennedy, said: “Shahidul Alam is wrongfully detained, and I proudly stand with those who are calling for his immediate and unconditional release. Bangladesh should comply with its international human-rights obligations and free Shahidul Alam.”

Demonstrators said Alam’s imprisonment and the passage of a new Digital Security Bill in Bangladesh showed a disturbing trend toward suppressing freedom of the press and speech in the South Asian country.

“Alam’s detention is an attempt to intimidate and silence voices of dissent in Bangladesh,” said Julie Trébault, director of the Artists at Risk Connection at PEN America. “As a photographer, Alam documents the truth; his work and his voice matter now more than ever.”

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Bangladeshi photojournalist Shahidul Alam has been incarcerated by the Awami League government. Photo courtesy: Christopher Michel (CC by 2.0)

The South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, Meenakshi Ganguly, said: “The government has accused Shahidul Alam of ‘false propaganda’ but he was doing what he has always done: speak up for human rights.  Bangladeshi PM Hasina says the government has no intention of gagging anyone, but denying him and others the right to liberty and free speech undermines that claim.”

The call for his release was earlier supported by 12 Nobel laureates and international figures including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, economist Amartya Sen and Dr Muhammad Yunus. Several British members of Parliament with Bangladeshi roots also came out in Alam’s support, including Tulip Siddiq, PM Hasina’s own niece.

An innovative protest

While the protests for Shahidul Alam were going on in front of the UN headquarters, supporters and activists of US wings of Bangladesh’s two main political parties – the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – also gathered there in numbers, chanting slogans and displaying placards against each other in a face-off. The pro-government supporters also voiced abusive remarks against the protesters demanding Alam’s freedom.

“There were BNP supporters on our right side, and Awami League supporters on our left,” said Nazreen, who participated in the protest, “and we felt our message got a bit muffled in between the two.”

Getting a bit frustrated about losing space in between the political battles of the two parties on a foreign shore, Nazreen planned to take it to the next level: the sky.

On Sunday, Nazreen chartered an airplane and circled around the sky above Manhattan, carrying the banner message “Free Shahidul Alam.” The banner further read “free our teachers,” referring to Alam’s role as a teacher and mentor.

“Shahidul Alam is an inspiration for Bangladesh and beyond,” Nazreen, who has known Alam for more than two decades, told Asia Times. She added that by arresting Alam and humiliating him, the incumbent Awami League government was trying to set an example. “Very few civil-society members and the younger generation are daring to speak up in Bangladesh, especially with the introduction of the new Digital Security Act.

“But the fact is with the upcoming elections, the issues of press freedom and freedom of speech are more important now than ever,” she said.

Nazreen said Shahidul Alam’s positive reach spread throughout the seven continents and the world would not rest until he is free. “We, the youth of Bangladesh who comprise almost 70% of the nation, urge the government of Bangladesh to immediately and unconditionally release him.”

Little progress on legal front

Little progress has been made in the legal effort in Bangladesh to free the photojournalist. His bail application remained unheard for more than a month until this Monday, when the Bangladesh High Court resumed its operation after a month-long pre-scheduled annual vacation.

The government meanwhile filed a “leave to appeal” petition challenging the division facilities awarded to Alam in the vacation-time court. A vacation bench of the Bangladesh High Court on September 5 had directed the government to give first-class division facilities in jail to Alam, which include a bed, a table, a chair, a mosquito net, a newspaper and better food.

Alam’s lawyer Sara Hossain said they moved for bail in the High Court when it opened on Monday after the long vacation. “The hearing [was] listed on October 3.”

Hossain said a lower court rejected the appeal for bail, a day after the High Court ordered the Metropolitan Sessions Judges Court to settle the plea from Alam.

“The district and sessions judge in rejecting bail stated that a citizen cannot comment or upload any Facebook post on free and fair elections, only a politician can do that,” Hossain said.

“We are very concerned at why a citizen is being deprived of his liberty arbitrarily and at the order of the sessions court that shows total lack of application of mind in his manifestly partisan and irrelevant observations,” said Alam’s lawyer.

Alam’s wife Rahnuma Ahmed said: “The jail can’t break his spirit.

“He is working on exhibitions he would like to put together on prison life through installation art when he comes out from there. He is also keenly interested in working on prison reform.”