A Bangladesh court today rejected the bail plea of renowned photographer and activist Shahidul Alam. He had been arrested on August 5, 2018 just hours after denouncing on Al Jazeera and on Facebook the government’s crackdown on massive student protests demanding traffic safety, as well as other human rights abuses.
The prosecutor argued that the government does not care about world opinion. Well, it should.
Alam, 63, is accused under the draconian section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act for “false propaganda” on social media. By going after such a prominent figure, whose detention has attracted wide international attention, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina apparently wants to show that no one who dares criticize or challenge its actions will be spared.
In the decade that Bangladesh’s ruling party, the Awami League, has been in office, human rights have repeatedly been compromised. Scores of people, including opposition supporters, have become victims of enforced disappearances. Others were detained and kneecapped – deliberately shot in the lower leg – many permanently disabled. Hundreds have been killed in so-called gunfights or “crossfire” – euphemisms for extrajudicial executions.
Newspaper editors face being charged with criminal defamation and sedition. Journalists and broadcasters are routinely under pressure from the authorities to restrain criticism of the government. Opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia remains in prison, denied bail after being convicted in a corruption case that her supporters say is politically motivated.
The recent crackdown has been heavy-handed. Blogger Pinaki Bhattacharya has gone into hiding. Parents of student protesters had to demand their children be produced in court after they were held in secret detention for days. Numerous others like Mozammel Hoque Chowdhury, a road safety campaigner, are under arrest, facing trumped-up charges.
Influential governments and donors need to respond, and soon, to call for an end to the government’s flagrant abuses. As a start, they should call for the immediate release of Shahidul Alam and others held in politically motivated cases.