An Acclaimed Photographer in Bangladesh Says He Was Tortured

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An Acclaimed Photographer in Bangladesh Says He Was TorturedThe last time the acclaimed Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam had a major run-in with the police, it was for a 2010 project documenting official torture and death squads, which led the Dhaka police to besiege and shut down his gallery and provoked national protests on his behalf.

This time, he was picked up in connection with protests that have roiled Bangladesh for the past two weeks, mostly by high school students angered by the deaths of two students killed by a speeding bus.

At least 20 police officers raided Mr. Alam’s home on Sunday, hours after he posted a video on Facebook saying that he had been beaten up by pro-government thugs and made a similar claim in an interview with Al Jazeera. He criticized the government’s handling of the protests.

Mr. Alam, 63, who is also a social activist and entrepreneur, was later taken to a court hearing barefoot, leaning on two officers for support and loudly proclaiming that he had been tortured in custody.

A high court judge ordered the government to take him to the hospital, which the authorities did on Wednesday, but then returned him to custody. Hospital officials said he had no injuries requiring hospitalization.

International reaction has been swift and widespread, bringing condemnation from nearly every major journalism group and many human rights organizations, including Amnesty International.

Reporters Without Borders in France called it “a dark day for press freedom,” saying that about two dozen other journalists had been beaten during the protests by the police and youths linked to the governing Awami League party, who were wearing motorcycle helmets and carrying clubs. The police did not appear to try to stop the youth league members from attacking protesters and journalists.

Mr. Alam was among the journalists beaten by the youth league members, according to his own account supported by video of the attacks posted online. After narrowly escaping them on Sunday, he took refuge in a guesthouse and went on Facebook Live to recount what had happened.

A short time later, he was interviewed on Al Jazeera television by Skype and repeated his criticisms. Within hours, the police arrested him at his home, seizing any closed-circuit camera footage from his home and disabling the cameras.

Bangladesh’s information minister, Hasanul Haq Inu, appeared on Al Jazeera television on Wednesday to defend the government’s treatment of journalists.

“The press is free, but sometimes journalists are victimized, but it’s not part of the government plan,” he said.

Mr. Inu said that he did not believe Mr. Alam’s allegations of torture, but that any police officer proved to have done so would be punished.

Tripathi Salil, the head of Pen International’s Writers in Prison Committee, said, “Shahidul is a distinguished photographer, writer, artist and human rights activist who has done more to tell the stories of the underprivileged, marginalized, dispossessed, vulnerable and abused in Bangladesh and beyond.”

Mr. Alam started the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute — a school for photographers — as well as a Dhaka photo festival. He also judged many photography competitions around the world. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times.

“The reason Bangladesh has a disproportionate number of world-class photographers is because of him,” said Gary Knight, a director of the VII Foundation, an American photography organization for which Mr. Alam serves as a board member. “He’s basically a one-man kind of aid agency, journalist, media trainer, school operator, and he’s funded it all himself.”

In addition, Mr. Alam and his partner, the writer Rahnuma Ahmed, “have fed and helped thousands of homeless street kids in Dhaka over the years,” Mr. Knight said.

Mr. Alam was charged under a law that gives the Bangladesh government wide latitude to arrest anyone who criticizes the authorities. Arguing at a hearing on Mr. Alam’s detention on Tuesday, a government prosecutor said that police who were questioning Mr. Alam had asked him how long he planned to keep criticizing the government.

“Until the government falls,” the prosecutor quoted him as saying.

The demonstrations paralyzed Dhaka, the capital city of 19 million, and the police began fighting back with rubber bullets. The protests later widened as university students joined them, but then petered out as teachers said the government had ordered them to report student absences.

Calling for better enforcement of traffic laws, the protesters have stopped cars, including those of prominent officials, and demanded to see driver’s licenses and other documents.

According to local news accounts, at least five journalists were hospitalized on Sunday, among two dozen who were injured.

Attacks on journalists have grown in frequency and severity in recent months. On July 22, a prominent former editor was beaten by a gang of more than 100 members of the ruling party’s youth league, and escaped with severe injuries, according to a report from Reporters Without Borders.

At Mr. Alam’s Dhaka gallery and photo agency, Drik, the manager and curator, Rezaur Rahman, said support had poured in from around the world.

“This is very shocking,” Mr. Rahman said. “He did look better today. While going from the hospital, he was walking on his own.”

Last year, the Reuters journalist Andrew Marshall wrote to Mr. Alam to thank him for supporting the cause of two of the agency’s reporters who had been arrested by the government in Myanmar.

He said Mr. Alam had responded graciously by saying: “I’ve been in trouble before, and it was because of the generosity and rapid response of my friends that I am still alive. So it all comes around.”

Original Article

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