Shahidul Alam denied bail in Bangladesh

Bangladeshi photographer and Drik Gallery director Shahidul Alam has reportedly been denied bail by a court in Dhaka.

Various local media outlets, including United News of Bangladesh, The Daily Star, and Bangla Tribune, have all reported that Judge KM Imrul Kayes of Dhaka Metropolitan Session Judge’s Court passed the order on 11 September. Public Prosecutor Mohammad Abu Abdullah moved against the bail petition, while Barrister Sarah Hossain stood for Alam – who filed the bail petition through his lawyers on 28 August, asking for it to be granted as he is ill.

Alam was picked up from his home in the Dhanmondi neighbourhood in Dhaka on 05 August; police filed the case against him and he stood before a Dhaka court the following day. In court, Alam claimed he was tortured in custody, an allegation which the police have denied but which has not been independently investigated. After a seven-day remand, Alam was denied bail and sent to Dhaka Central Jail on 13 August, where he has been remanded in custody pending the completion of the police investigation; his detention was extended until the 11 September bail hearing. A court in Dhaka declined to hear an earlier bail petition on 04 September 2018 as a presiding judge said he was “embarrassed” without revealing the cause of the “embarrassment”.

Shahidul Alam being taken to the Chief metropolitan magistrate court, Dhaka
Shahidul Alam being taken to the Chief metropolitan magistrate court, Dhaka

Alam, 63, is being held under the controversial section 57 of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, Act, which carried up to 14 years in prison, and which has been used in more than 20 cases recently involving journalists, most of them related to news-reporting, according to Bangladeshi paper The Daily Star. Alam is charged with “spreading propaganda and false information against the government”, after posting videos on Facebook and being interviewed by Qatar-based television station Al-Jazeera about the government’s crackdown on protests over summer, which were originally sparked off by a bus accident but expanded to critique perceived corruption in the country.

“It is very much larger,” he told Al-Jazeera. “This has been going on for a very, very long time. The government has been taking on group force; the looting of the banks, the gagging of the media, mobile internet is currently switched off, the killings, the disappearances, the need to get protection on all levels, the bribery, and corruption. It’s a never ending list. The traffic incident, as sad as it is, is really just the valve that allowed things to go through.”

Alam is a well-respected photographer and educator, the founder of the renowned Pathshala South Asian Media Academy and the Drik Picture Library, and the director of the Chobi Mela photography festival. He has served on the juries of various competitions, including World Press Photo. His book My Journey as a Witness, was described as “the most important book ever written by a photographer” by John Morris, the former picture editor of Life magazine. His incarceration has been protested by many influential figures worldwide, including World Press Photo, Magnum Photos, and PEN International.

“It is time for Bangladesh to stop this ordeal,” said Salil Tripathi, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee. “The Bangladeshi government is digging deep and casting a wide net in the hope of finding reasons to charge Shahidul Alam because it has no plausible reason to arrest him. Alam’s criticism of the government’s conduct is entirely in line with his constitutional right to free expression. He has expressed his views peacefully and not said anything that might provoke violence.

“There has been violence on the streets against journalists and students and the Bangladeshi government is required to investigate who is responsible for that violence. There is considerable photographic and video evidence of that, including attacks on journalists. Bangladesh should withdraw all false cases and ensure safety for Alam, his family, and his colleagues.”

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is the editor of BJP, returning for a second stint on staff in 2023 - after 15 years on the team until 2019. As a freelancer, she has written for The Guardian, FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, Aperture, FOAM, Aesthetica and Apollo. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy