Who Is Afraid of Shahidul Alam?

August 20, 2018

people holding banners demanding the release of Shahidul AlamThe imprisonment of Bangladesh’s most respected photojournalist illustrates the country’s drift toward autocracy.

On Aug. 5, Shahidul Alam, the acclaimed Bangladeshi photojournalist, was dragged from his home by around 30 plainclothes policemen and taken into custody. The policemen forced their way into Mr. Alam’s apartment building at 10:30 p.m., snatched the cellphones of the building’s security guards and destroyed its video surveillance cameras.

Yet someone managed to record the moment via a cellphone video. Mr. Alam can be heard screaming. “I am innocent,” he says, repeatedly. And, “I want a lawyer.” It was horrifying to watch Mr. Alam, whom I know as an amiable, self-effacing, brilliant man, scream in the video. Thus does terror enter our daily lives these days.

Mr. Alam’s work over the decades has captured some of the most important political and ecological questions in Bangladesh and the region around it. A friend remembers waking up to the tragedy of the Rohingya people from Myanmar after seeing an exhibition of Mr. Alam’s photographs in New York. I first encountered his work after a cyclone in Bangladesh in 1991. I was involved in the relief effort and visited the affected area after the storm. Mr. Alam’s photographs captured the reality of my experience. Befittingly, in 2014, Mr. Alam was awarded the Shilpakala Padak, one of the highest honors for artists in the country, by the president of Bangladesh.

The trigger for Mr. Alam’s arrest was an interview he did with Al Jazeera, in which he spoke critically of the brutal repression of student demonstrations in Dhaka by the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. He also spoke about official corruption, years of misrule, the suppression of dissent and extrajudicial killings and disappearances under the watch of Ms. Hasina’s governing Awami League. Paradoxically, the imprisonment of Mr. Alam only proved his point.

After a speeding bus killed two students in Dhaka in late July, thousands of students — including schoolchildren — protested in the streets. As the protests intensified into a general outcry against the government, the government responded by unleashing mobs of the Awami League party faithful to attack the student protesters. Researchers from Human Rights Watch spoke to several eyewitnesses who described how the protesters were attacked by members of Bangladesh Chhatra League and Awami Jubo League, the student wing and the youth wing of the Awami League.

Mr. Alam was among the journalists who witnessed the Awami League faithful attacking student protesters while the police stood by. He photographed the protests and the repression.

The celebrated photojournalist wasn’t the only person arrested. Numerous student protesters were also arrested and were tortured in police custody.

General elections in Bangladesh are expected between October and December. It is the obligation of artists and intellectuals to be constructively critical of their country of citizenship. Ms. Hasina’s government must be deeply afraid of a credible, respected person like Mr. Alam, whose criticisms are taken seriously, both nationally and globally. His arrest and imprisonment is an attempt to silence critical voices.

Ms. Hasina’s government is not stopping with his arrest. It is trying to find ways of defaming him and tarnishing his reputation. Mr. Alam’s partner, Rahnuma Ahmed, an anthropologist, visited him in prison and was startled to realize their meeting was being secretly videotaped by the prison authorities.

“Friends in the electronic media tell me they have been instructed by the agencies to produce ‘dirty stories’ on Shahidul, there is even talk of constructing him as a pedophile — pathetic given his love for children known to everyone,” Ms. Ahmed said in an email.

This is not surprising, given the bleak drift toward authoritarianism in Bangladesh in the past few years. As reported by Human Rights Watch and numerous journalists, hundreds of Bangladeshis have been picked up by law enforcement agencies and have disappeared for weeks or months at a time. The whereabouts of many of them remains unknown. In the name of a war on drugs, hundreds have been killed by extrajudicial means.

Two days after Mr. Alam’s arrest, he was produced in a Dhaka court and charged under Section 57 of Bangladesh’s infamous Information and Communication Technology Act, for online speech that “hurts the image of the nation.” He was barefoot and limping when he was dragged into court. Witnesses said Mr. Alam showed clear signs of mental and physical abuse. He shouted: “I have been assaulted. My bloodstained shirt was washed and put back on me. I was threatened that if I didn’t testify as they directed, I would be further … ” Then his voice trailed off and the rest of what he said was unclear.