When on August 7, the High Court in Dhaka ordered that noted Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam be transferred to a hospital from the custody of the Detective Branch of Dhaka Metropolitan Police, his partner Rahnuma Ahmed described the order as a “sigh of relief”. The following day, though, brought more anguish. “Shahidul was just taken for a medical check-up. I also heard that the government is going to challenge the court’s order during the hearing tomorrow,” said Ahmed on the phone, as she made her way to the lawyer’s office yesterday.
In between consulting Alam’s lawyers, Dr Kamal Hossain and Sara Hossain, Ahmed recalled the events of the night of August 5, when Alam was picked up from his Dhanmondi apartment in Dhaka. “It was a bit after 10 pm. I was not in the flat but I heard a scream and ran down. We heard from the security guards and our landlord that he had been forced into a car. There would have been about 30-35 men in plain clothes. They forcefully took the CCTV camera footage,” she says. While she rushed to the police station, she says, her FIR was not accepted. “If someone like Shahidul can be tortured, that really sends out a signal that no one is safe. He has so much credibility. He is known to speak truth to power,” says Ahmed, a writer and anthropologist. It was only the following afternoon that she was officially informed that Alam had been arrested in a case filed under the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act. The same evening, the trial court remanded him into custody for seven days.
The previous week, the photographer had posted several comments on social media supporting the ongoing students’ protests in Bangladesh that began after two students were run over and 12 others wounded in a bus accident in Dhaka on July 29. He was arrested hours after giving an interview to Al Jazeera, where he had criticised the government. “The state that we are living in, anyone can be picked up anytime or go missing. He (Alam) had been speaking against these disappearances, and now it happened to him. Anyone who speaks against the repressive state is being silenced. Dissent is not being allowed. There is no space for any rational criticism,” says Ahmed, adding, “The students have absolutely reasonable demands. They are doing what the traffic police should be doing. Even these students are being arrested, remanded and tortured.”
Meanwhile, artists, writers, filmmakers and photographers in India too have condemned Alam’s arrest. A protest was held against his “abduction” at the Mumbai Press Club on August 7, and the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust has released a statement to “Free Shahidul Alam”. Photographer Raghu Rai has also addressed a letter to Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, on social media. He writes, “It’s not only me in India but many other journalists and photo journalists, artists, writers from around the world who vouch for him (Alam) and stand by him. We are deeply hurt by the news of Shahidul being detained and tortured. All he has done is to use his photographic skill and voice to capture the truth of ongoing reality in a most committed and compassionate way.”
Another statement has been released by over 400 signatories, including artists Amar Kanwar, Anita Dube, Bharti Kher, Riyas Komu and Tushar Joag. “We demand his immediate, unconditional and honourable release from detention. We totally refute the allegation that Shahidul Alam committed any crime by highlighting the utterly reasonable and peaceful protests by schoolchildren and young people in Dhaka against the lethal malpractices in the transport sector that have resulted in unnecessary deaths,” it reads.