‘You are guilty because we say so.’ 

The imprisonment of Odhikar’s Adilur Rahman Khan and ASM Nasiruddin Elan 

The humiliation of being put in that cage was not lost on anyone. Odhikar’s Secretary Adilur Rahman Khan and Director ASM Nasiruddin Elan had been there before, as indeed had I. Multiple times, on some occasions because the judge wanted to see me inside again. His sadistic pleasure in putting me back in the cage, on public display. The rambling judgement at the end of Odhikar’s case could have been reduced to two sentences. “You are guilty because we say so. You will go to jail, because we can.” 

I knew Adil and Elan through my crossfire exhibition, a show I had produced in 2010 based on extensive research by Momena Jalil, Fariha Karim and others of the Drik team. We were to open the show on 22nd March 2010, but the government intervened. Apparently, we had no right to show our own artwork in our own gallery without special government permission. We had asked which law this was stipulated by, but they weren’t able to produce any. Riot police came over anyway and closed down our gallery. Mahasweta Devi, the fiery Indian writer and activist had flown over to open the show. Nurul Kabir, one of the bravest editors Bangladesh has seen and one who still has the spine to resist publishing government propaganda, was also one of the speakers. With armed police surrounding the gallery, we resorted to opening the show in the streets of Dhanmondi outside our office.  

Police prevent human rights defender Adilur Rahman Khan from raising his fist in a show of defiance, as he enters prison van. Adil succeeded in breaking free and raising his clenched fist. 14th September 2023. Outside Judge Court. Dhaka. Photo: Dipu Malakar/Prothom Alo

We also took the government to court. Those were the days when the court still had the gumption to rule against the government, and seeing they would lose the case, the government pre-empted them by withdrawing the police the night before the ruling, but not before I’d interviewed them. The policeman in charge gave a lovely analysis of why the show would enrage a public already angry about extra-judicial killings. When asked if people knew about crossfire killings (they were denied by the government), ‘even my three-year-old daughter knows about crossfire’ he had said. The video footage is on YouTube for the world to see. Just who does the government think it is fooling? We had produced a touring version of the show, which we gave away for free to anyone who wanted it. Odhikar had arranged showings in remote parts of Bangladesh. Ordinary people in faraway cities had flocked to see the show.  Like the policeman’s three-year-old daughter, they too knew about ‘crossfire’. Government lies have their limits. 

The facts of this case were irrelevant. If anyone was distorting the facts, that it was the government doing so was plain for anyone to see. Odhikar’s fact finding document was far closer to the figures of credible international human rights organisations and observations by primary witnesses than the government’s outlandish figures. But it required an independent judiciary to see what was plain to anyone else.  

On the 14th there were no fears of bad press as the French president Macron had left Dhaka, but there were still some doubts about whether the verdict would be delivered. Many diplomats were present in court, unsure of the outcome. Drik’s directors Rahnuma Ahmed and Saydia Gulrukh, seasoned court watchers, texted me that the verdict would be announced, all the telltale signs were there. The prison van being on alert way before the judgement. Extra police on deployment, media leaks. Government’s pet media channels being on standby. The lower court judgement was read out in English and was a dead giveaway that the script had been written for the international audience in court. 

When I had been in a similar prison van five years ago, a fellow prisoner had offered me a banana he had been able to sneak in. I am certain Adil and Elan will receive the same kindness from fellow prisoners. They will have been taken to ‘amdani’ (import) last night, and will have gathered at the ‘Case Table’ around sunrise. They will have crouched on the floor, barefoot. They will have walked to the warden, sitting princely at his desk. The warden will have imparted wise words and told them how his jail was ‘corruption free,’ as is advertised in every government office. As Bangladeshi activists Adil and Elan will have read the unsaid message that everything in jail has a price. Calculated in cigarette packets ironically named Hollywood, the standard jail currency unit. One Hollywood, two Hollywoods, the transactions go. They will have been partially stripped and inspected. They will then have had their mug shots taken and their images will be permanently on record as convicts. 

At some point, they will be sold from amdani. Much as slaves used to be sold. Those in charge of the other buildings, curiously known as ‘writers,’ will bid for them based on their estimation of how much they can be milked. They will then go to the corresponding ‘writer’s building.’ The quality of the cells they will end up in, the food on offer and any extra ‘facilities’ and visiting rights will all have a Hollywood price tag, though certain facilities, like ‘office call’ visitations will have significantly higher costs and will need to be negotiated directly with the wardens. The normal visitation, playfully called ‘kauwa shakkhat’ (crow visit), takes place in the morning hours. It is also an opportunity to walk out of the cell and across the grounds to the perimeter room where three layers of bars separate prisoners from visitors. Everyone screaming to be heard, results in no one being heard over the din. The relative lull during the changeover period provides a tiny window of a few minutes when a real conversation may be had, which can be arranged for five Hollywoods extra.  

One of the accusations against Odhikar is that they were vilifying the image of the government. For a government being accused of violations by the UN, by leading human rights organisations across the globe, by over a hundred Nobel laureates as well as other global leaders denouncing its actions, and with the Bangladeshi public up in arms about being robbed of their right to vote, that should be the least of the government’s concerns. 

As they were entering the prison van, Adil tried to raise his clenched fist in defiance of an unjust ruling. Immediately, the government’s scripted theatre fell apart. Policemen pounced on the hapless human rights defender, forcefully holding his arms down. The crowd cheered as Adil broke free and raised his hand. Many a clenched fist is being raised in the streets in support of his defiance. 

Shahidul Alam 

Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.”

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