“Found” Bangladeshi Photojournalist Must Be Released
Shafiqul Islam Kajol’s arrest highlights threat to free speech in Bangladesh
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
(New York, NY) –Bangladeshi photo journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol was arrested and charged Monday shortly after being “found” following a disappearance of 53 days. PEN America denounced his disappearance and arrest as a blatant attempt to muzzle criticism of the government, and demanded that Bangladeshi authorities immediately release Kajol and drop all charges against him.
“For 53 days, Shafiqul Islam Kajol’s family waited for news of his whereabouts–not knowing if he was dead or alive–but heard only silence from the government,” said Julie Trebault, director of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) at PEN America. “Now, when they finally learn that Kajol is alive and well in Benapole near the Indian border, they have only to discover that he has been arrested, publicly paraded in handcuffs, and jailed while spurious charges are being investigated. This is just one more iteration of Bangladeshi authorities’ ongoing attempts to punish freedom of expression and criminalize anyone who criticizes their rule, either through art, journalism, or the posting of personal opinions online.”
Kajol had been missing since March 10, the day after he was charged under Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act along with 31 others. An acclaimed photojournalist, he is accused of posting to Facebook posts about politicians involved in sex scandals. Authorities charged him with publishing “false, offensive and defamatory” information. Many believed he was forcibly disappeared shortly thereafter for embarrassing members of the ruling Awami League party.
“Kajol’s disappearance and now arrest highlight the profound dangers of Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act, which grants officials broad authority to arrest people for online speech,” said PEN America’s Trebaul. “Kajol, alongside all other artists, writers, and journalists prosecuted for expressing themselves under this law and others, must be freed immediately without further physical and psychological harm.”
Those close to Kajol are extremely concerned for his health and welfare going forward, as he was seen handcuffed without a protective mask even as hundreds of police officers in Bangladesh have tested positive for the coronavirus, and the current closure of the courts means that there is no way to challenge his detention or seek bail in his case.
His disappearance and arrest is one instance of many in which artists, writers, and photojournalists have faced persecution and imprisonment in a climate in Bangladesh that is increasingly inimical to free expression. In 2018, well-known photographer, journalist, and activist Shahidul Alam was arrested, tortured, and held for over 100 days because of his work. In late 2017, scholar and writer Mubashar Hasan, who specializes in research into Islamic extremism, was disappeared for more than a month by security services before being finally released.
Cases of enforced disappearance have risen over the past several years, according to both local and international human rights groups. Additionally, numerous critics are prosecuted under the Digital Security Act, which gives the government widespread remit to limit speech online through vague guidelines and lack of clear definitions.
PEN America leads the Artists at Risk Connection, a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, contact ARC here.