We, academics, journalists, artists, writers, and photographers at various universities and media institutions strongly condemn the detention and torture of our colleague the photojournalist and activist Shahidul Alam in Dhaka and urge the Bangladesh authorities to release him immediately.
Some two dozen plainclothes policemen picked up Alam, 63, from his home on the night of 5 August 2018. They smashed CCTV cameras, confiscated mobile phones of witnesses, and dragged Alam into a van. He was produced in court the following day, barely able to walk. According to a friend who was present, Alam said they washed and ironed his bloodied clothes before he came to court.
Shortly before being picked up, Alam had given a live interview to Al Jazeera TV contextualising the ongoing student protests in Bangladesh, catalysed when a speeding bus killed two students. Thousands of peaceful student protestors are demanding the bus driver be tried and punished, and safeguards put in place to prevent such accidents. Over 115 students were injured over the weekend. Alam was also assaulted, and his video camera smashed. At least five other journalists were injured, one of whom had to be hospitalized for head injuries.
Alam in his interview and social media posts said that the police allowed machete-wielding thugs to attack the students and even joined them in the attacks. A police official reportedly stated that Alam, 63, was being investigated for “giving false information to different media and for provocative comments.”
On Monday, Alam was charged under Article 57(2) of the draconian Information, Communication and Technology Act, for social media posts the government claims are spreading unrest.
Shahidul Alam’s detention underlines the growing crackdown on dissenting voices in Bangladesh, in a pattern that is visible elsewhere too. The court denied him bail and gave the police a seven-day remand. This was subsequently reduced and the court ordered that Shahidul be sent to a hospital and given an immediate medical exam and treatment. However, he is still at the Detective Branch and has not been moved to hospital.
We find it deplorable that this eminent citizen of Bangladesh, a recipient of Shilpakala Padak, the country’s highest national award for the arts, is being treated like this. Alam is the founder of Drik Picture Library and Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, known globally for documenting the rights of the vulnerable and poor and for his consistent expose of human rights abuses. An honorary fellow of the Royal Photographic Society and visiting professor at Sunderland University, he has chaired the World Press Photo jury among other honors. A new media pioneer who introduced email to Bangladesh, his book My Journey as a Witness is “the most important book ever written by a photographer” to quote John Morris, former picture editor of Life Magazine.
We urge the Bangladeshi authorities to:
- Drop all charges against Shahidul Alam, ensure that he is provided medical treatment and released immediately
- Order an inquiry into why the officials responsible for action destroyed property and threatened others, ensure that security forces act proportionately and with due process
- Change laws that allow the state to make such whimsical attacks on freedom of expression; stop arresting journalists and citizens without warrant, prosecuting and jailing them under ICT, a law that even the government admits has been misused.
- Use restraint in dealing with the youthful protestors, many of them children, and ensure that the police play their role responsibly rather than with rubber bullets and tear gas as they have done so far.
- Follow due process in dealing with the counter-demonstrators attacking the students; the attackers should not be given impunity based on their affiliation.
- Noam Chomsky, Professor Emeritus, MIT; Laureate Professor, University of Arizona, Tuscon
- Bapsi Sidhwa, author, Lahore/Houston
- E. Patrick Farrell, photojournalist, Miami, Fl; Pulitzer Prize Breaking News Photography 2009; Distinguished Executive-in-Residence 2017-18, Emerson College, Boston
- Ayesha Jalal, Mary Richardson Professor of History, Director, Center for South Asian and Indian Ocean Studies, Tufts University
- Salima Hashmi, Honorary Doctrate, University of Bath Spa, UK; Professor Emeritus Beaconhouse National University, Pakistan; artist, art educator, human rights activist; daughter of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, poet and Friend of Bangladesh Awardee
- Dr. Abdul Hameed Nayyar, Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University, USA; retired physics professor, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan
- Beena Sarwar, journalist, Pakistan; Nieman ‘06 Harvard University; Visiting Faculty, Emerson College, Boston
- Kamala Visweswaran, Professor of Ethnic Studies, University of California San Diego
- Owais Aslam Ali, Nieman ‘02 Harvard University; Secretary General, Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)
- Rahul Mehrotra, Professor of Urban Design and Planning, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University
- Vinay Nagaraju, Mason Fellow ‘17, Research Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.
- Waqas Khwaja, Ellen Douglass Leyburn Professor of English, Agnes Scott College, Atlanta.
- Sehba Sarwar, independent writer and artist; founding director Voices Breaking Boundaries, Karachi/Pasadena CA
- Nejem Raheem, Ph.D. associate professor of economics and chair, Marketing Communication department, Emerson College, Boston.
- Ken Shulman, Executive Producer “Away Games”,” Freedman Martin Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School 2004.
- Elora Halim Chowdhury, Ph.D. Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department, University of Massachusetts Boston.
- Yasmin Jaffri, anthropologist, literary educationist, PhD candidate in Theology & Religion, Oxford University
- Zia Mian, Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
- Pervez Hoodbhoy, Physics Department, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad; Distinguished Professor of Physics and Mathematics, Forman Christian College-University, Lahore
- Jennifer Leaning MD SMH, FXB Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, MA USA
- Abha Sur, Lecturer, Program in Science, Technology and Society, and in Women and Gender Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge MA
- Urvashi Butalia, director and CEO Zubaan Publishers; author of the award winning The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India
- M. V. Ramana, Professor and Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security, Liu Institute for Global Issues, School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada
- Himali Dixit, writer and educator, Berkeley, CA, USA
- Jacqueline Bhabha, Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; Director of Research, François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights,; Jeremiah Smith Jr. Lecturer, Harvard Law School, University Adviser on Human Rights Education
- Homi K. Bhabha, Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities, Department of English; Director, Mahindra Humanities Center; Senior Advisor on the Humanities to the President and Provost, Harvard University
- Zaheer Alam Kidvai, Education Technologist; Curator of Urdu Poetry and Classical Music.