Last week, 53 days after his suspicious disappearance on March 10, Bangladeshi journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol was “found” by authorities in Benapole, 150 miles from Dhaka where he was last seen. On May 3, border guards apparently discovered Kajol, the editor of the daily newspaper Dainik Pokkhokal, in a field near the Bangladesh-India border, blindfolded and with his legs and arms bound.
While it is a relief to learn that Kajol is alive, his discovery is by no means the end of his ordeal. In the immediate days that followed, the photojournalist faced five charges against him: three under the country’s infamous Digital Security Act and two further cases brought after his discovery.
Another Journalist Disappears in Bangladesh
Instead of ensuring his wellbeing and swift release, Kajol was accused of attempting to illegally cross the border into Bangladesh, arrested and detained on charges of trespassing and entering the country without legal documentation. His 20-year-old son, Monorom Polok, received a phone call from an officer at Benapole police station informing him of his father’s situation. Polok immediately made the six-hour journey from the family home in Dhaka to see his father and attend his hearing in Jessore.
Although trespassing is a bailable offense in Bangladesh, and the court ordered that Kajol be granted bail, the authorities have refused to release him. Later that day, Polok learned that police filed a further case against him under the widely criticized Section 54 of the Criminal Procedure Code — a law used to detain anyone under suspicion, without requiring evidence or proof — in order to justify his extended captivity. But this charge was brought after the bail hearing, meaning that Kajol should have been released.
The day before his disappearance, Kajol was one of 32 individuals subjected to a criminal defamation complaint by an Awami League MP, Saifuzzaman Shikhor, facing accusations of publishing defamatory news in the form of a Facebook post about the alleged involvement of Shikhor and other figures with a female escort service. Under the country’s repressive Digital Security Act, Kajol faces up to seven years in prison. His disappearance, and suspected torture, appear to be heavily connected.
Over 500 people have been victims of suspicious disappearances in Bangladesh over the last decade, many of them journalists. The Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) 2020 World Press Freedom Index ranks Bangladesh 151 out of 180 countries, attributing its poor position to the tougher methods adopted by Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the ruling Awami League party.
RSF explicitly criticizes the 2018 Digital Security Act — under which Kajol has been charged — calling it a “custom-made judicial weapon for silencing journalists.” Amnesty International has stressed how the act violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty to which Bangladesh is a party.
Although much remains unknown about what Kajol experienced during the several weeks he was unaccounted for and what sentence he may receive, one thing is clear: his life is at risk. The World Health Organization has measured Bangladesh’s closed-case death rate from the COVID-19 disease at over four times that of India and 10 times higher than Sri Lanka. Due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Bangladesh, the courts are currently closed, and it appears likely that his trial will be put on hold until the threat of the pandemic passes.
According to Polok, “The issue that is taking our sleep away at the moment is his health.” While the prisoner capacity in Bangladesh is 41,000, the current number of prisoners is 90,000 — more than double. Kajol’s family is gravely concerned about the increased risk he faces of contracting COVID-19 in Bangladesh’s overcrowded prisons, particularly as an older, vulnerable inmate.
The day after Kajol was discovered, 874 police officers tested positive for the disease, and guards and prisoners face a greater risk of catching and transmitting the virus. In court, police officers wore protective clothing and face masks while Kajol had no protection.
In Bangladesh, many prisoners — including those sentenced for the most serious crimes of murder and rape — have been allowed to leave confinement for their health and safety. Sheikh Hasina has urged Bangladeshis to show humanity and stay at home in order to contain the pandemic. With prisoners around the world being released or permitted to serve their sentence at home to protect them from the spread of the virus, Kajol’s family desperately hopes he will receive similar treatment.
Polok continues: “My mother has stopped eating and sleeping. Her salary has stopped because of COVID-19. We do not know how to run our family and fight this legal battle.”
Since his father disappeared, Polok has run a relentless campaign to draw interest to the case. He even held an online photography exhibition, “Last Man Standing,” of his father’s work last month that has been viewed by over 200,000 people, at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has meant physical protests are impossible. Maintaining public attention on the case matters, and many believe it led to Kajol being “found.” It is exhausting and thankless, but Polok pledges to continue fighting until his father is free, telling us: “I’m not doing any of this for my benefit; I’m doing this as my duty to my father.”
Ultimately, the brutal manner of Kajol’s disappearance, the multiple and illogical charges that have been brought against him, and the apparent political nature of these attacks on his freedom of expression raise serious human rights concerns.
International human rights laws require governments to protect the right to freedom of expression. As long as Kajol remains in custody, and with the closure of courts restricting his ability to challenge his detention, we will continue to call on the Bangladeshi authorities to release him.
*[Alannah Travers is the vice-chair of the Labour Campaign for Human Rights. For regular updates and to add support to the campaign, follow @whereiskajol.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.