Bangladesh: Photographer facing 14 years declared prisoner of conscience

‘We are deeply worried about his treatment in custody and the condition in which he attended court’ - Omar Waraich

Shahidul Alam, a Bangladeshi photographer and outspoken social activist, could face between 7-14 years in prison for Facebook posts about the student protests he was covering, is a prisoner of conscience who should be immediately released Amnesty said today.

Shahidul Alam was charged yesterday under Section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information and Communication Technology Act shortly after giving an interview to Al-Jazeera on the current wave of school student protests calling for better road safety in Bangladesh.

The court in Dhaka also permitted the police to take Shahidul Alam into remand for seven days. Police remands in Bangladesh are notorious for involving unlawful force leading to torture, other cruel or inhuman treatment and custodial death. When he appeared in court, Shahidul Alam was unable to walk, raising concerns about his health and well-being

Omar Waraich, Amnesty International’s Deputy South Asia Director, said:

“Shahidul Alam is a prisoner of conscience detained simply for peacefully expressing his views. We are deeply worried about his treatment in custody and the condition in which he attended court.

“Journalists all over the globe are calling for Mr Alam’s immediate release and Bangladesh will be judged on how they treat him.

“The Government’s reaction to the recent protests in Bangladesh has raised global alarm. The violence unleashed against peaceful young students and journalists covering the protests has been a worrying spectacle which risks tarnishing the country’s reputation.

“The rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly should be protected by the state, not crushed.”

Shahidul Alam was first detained on Sunday for critical Facebook posts, shortly after he was interviewed on the Al-Jazeera English news channel. Discussing the ongoing student protests in Bangladesh, which he had photographed and streamed on Facebook Live, he criticised the government’s heavy-handed response. Earlier that day, men in plainclothes wearing helmets and wielding machetes and iron bars attacked five photojournalists and journalists from local media who were also covering the largely peaceful protests.

Section 57 of the ICT Act carries a minimum sentence of seven years and a maximum of 14 years in jail. Falling short of international legal standards protecting the right to freedom of expression, the Act has been used to muzzle dissidents.

The charges against Shahidul Alam come against the backdrop of student protests calling for safer roads after two students were killed and 13 others injured by a speeding bus while they were waiting at a bus stop. The largely peaceful protests have been met by excessive police force, including the use of tear-gas and rubber bullets. More than two hundred students have been injured.

The recent movements for road safety by the school and college students mostly aged under 18 have received widespread appreciation and solidarity from the Bangladesh public. The initially peaceful movement by the students turned violent after men in plainclothes wearing helmets and wielding machetes and iron bars started attacking the children and journalists who were performing their professional duties by covering the incident.

Arrest

On Sunday, Shahidul Alam was picked up by a group of men in plainclothes from his residence in Dhanmondi, Dhaka after 10:00pm. According to security guards at the apartment building and other eyewitness reports, men who claimed to be from the Detective Branch went upstairs, brought him down and forcibly pushed him into a waiting car.

The men covered an existing CCTV camera with tape and took away the CCTV footage of their entry. The guards were manhandled and locked up. Shahidul Alam’s partner, who was in a neighbouring flat, raced downstairs on hearing his scream as he was taken away, but the car carrying him and two other cars waiting outside sped away.

Amnesty has issued an Urgent Action calling for his release.

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