How do you persuade a government to release a prisoner, however wrongfully incarcerated, if it doesn’t want to cooperate?
Thousands of signatures, tweets, Instagram and Facebook posts. Dozens of articles. Then there are the rallies: from Kathmandu to New York, from Rome to New Delhi, London to Mumbai. Week by week, hundreds of people are gathering in public spaces to protest against the incarceration in Dhaka, Bangladesh, of photographer, journalist, teacher and activist Shahidul Alam.
Among the most headline-grabbing initiatives is Wasfia Nazreen’s sky-high stunt. The mountaineer and social activist — the first Bangladeshi to climb the Seven Summits — flew over Manhattan in an airplane trailing a banner that read “Free Shahidul Alam. Free our teachers.” Another high-profile intervention was made by artist Tania Bruguera, who was herself locked up in her native Cuba after she offended the state censors, and recently devoted her Tate Modern exhibition in London to a display of Alam’s photographs. “What keeps you going when you’re in prison,” Bruguera told me, “are your principles. And the support of others around you.” Continue reading “Shahidul Alam: Caught in the Crossfire of Bangladesh’s Fledgling Democracy”
I cannot now remember when I first met Shahidul Alam, but I think it was some twenty or more years ago when both of us served on the board of an organisation called Panos South Asia. My first impression of him was of a somewhat large, bearded man who spoke with an accent I could not place. It did not take long – perhaps a few hours – for this to change and for the warm, affectionate and caring human being to emerge.
Iconic shot of Bangladeshi photojournalist and rights activist Shahidul Alam, shared by the #FreeShahidul campaign. He finally got bail today after more than 100 days in prison, accused of spreading propaganda. He was arrested after posting on Facebook about protests in Dhaka.
To me, Shahidul came across that time as the best kind of nationalist. He loved – he still does – his country Bangladesh. His stint abroad – I never actually knew where he has studied or spent any time – had actually left this feeling much stronger in him. He told all of us about Drik, the photo agency that showcased photographers from the global South and that fiercely protected their rights and their work, refusing to accept that simply because they belonged to the South, their value was any the less. Drik charged for their photos as did international agencies, and why not, was Shahidul’s question. Continue reading “‘The Shahidul Alam I Know Is Gentle’”
It was a letter I read and reread long before it appeared before my eyes. It was through layers of metal bars that I strained to listen to Rahnuma’s words. At over 130 decibels, the noise made by us screaming prisoners, straining to hear and be heard, was akin to a crowded stadium or a fire siren. As she repeated her words over and over again, I faintly heard, Arundhati. Letter. It was just over a hundred days that I had been incarcerated. A hundred days since I’d slept on my own bed, fed my fish, cycled down the streets of Dhaka. A hundred days since I’d pressed my shutter as I searched for that elusive light.
Those words, screamed out but barely heard was the nourishment I needed. Did you write it by hand? What was the paper like? In this digital age, you probably used a keyboard. What font had you used? What point size? And the words. Words that you so gracefully string together. I relished the imagined words. Your words. I missed words as I missed my bed, my fish and Rahnuma’s touch. When they asked me what I needed in jail, books were on top of my list. The first lot of books came in. Mujib’s prison diaries, Schendel’s History of Bangladesh, and the book you’d given me when we last met, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. I’d been meaning to read it ever since we said goodbye in Delhi, but our lives had been taken over by the immediacy of our struggles. Now I had the time. Continue reading “Reply to Arundhati: Yes, We Will Rise”
PEN International welcomes the news that Shahidul Alam was granted bail today. PEN continues to call for the case against Alam to be dropped.
“While it is a relief to see the court in Dhaka granting bail to Shahidul Alam, it is by no means certain that he is free. The government is still determined to appeal in its ill-conceived pursuit of Shahidul on ridiculous charges under Bangladesh’s draconian laws. Those charges must be dropped immediately and Shahidul should be released unconditionally and his freedoms restored – freedoms which should never have been taken away,” said Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee.
15th November 2018
PEN International’s Day of the Imprisoned Writer
It’s been more than a hundred days now since they took you away. Times aren’t easy in your country or in mine, so when we first heard that unknown men had abducted you from your home, of course we feared the worst. Were you going to be “encountered” (our word in India for extra-judicial murder by security forces) or killed by “non-state actors”? Would your body be found in an alley, or floating in some shallow pond on the outskirts of Dhaka? When your arrest was announced and you surfaced alive in a police station, our first reaction was one of sheer joy.
On the night of 5 August,a couple of dozen men turned up at the photographer Shahidul Alam’s house in Dhaka. They dragged him from his apartment, bound and screaming, smashing surveillance cameras on the way out. Alam’s partner, Rahnuma Ahmed, was with a neighbour, so she could not react in time. By the time anyone fully realised what was going on, Alam had been thrown into a white van and driven off into the night’s darkness.
Where’s your bicycle? The Uber driver asked me jokingly. Yes, I had been known in photography circles and it is true that I did know a few Nobel Laureates. Given that I am a public speaker, and wear several hats, I do also come across the odd head of state, or celebrity. I’d be overstating it if I said they all knew me well. I have featured prominently in a film produced by Sharon Stone, but the long conversation on the phone, after my release, was very much an exception. But now that I have Uber drivers recognizing me, and people stopping me in the streets for selfies, I need to be careful I don’t trip over my own ego. Maybe I should be thanking the same person that everyone else thanks for everything that ever happens in Bangladesh.
I flatly deny making payments to the Bangladesh government for running a media campaign on my behalf. Neither is it true that I deliberately planted the inconsistencies in their fake news, making it appear they can’t tell a Kaffiey from a tablecloth. Let’s not get too technical. It started with me being a Mossad agent and taking money from Israel. Now I’ve been placed in the Al Qaeda farm, and definitely anti Israel. Considering that Israel is the one country that my government does not have diplomatic relationships with, and the only country my passport is not valid for, being anti Israel should theoretically make me a pal. My enemy’s enemy is my friend and all that.