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Without free speech there is no free citizenry

  • Published at 04:29 pm September 7th, 2018
Many will not get their day in court
Many will not get their day in court Photo:BIGSTOCK

Why I won’t be signing ‘Free Shahidul’ petitions


Call me the oddest of the odd ducks, but I am one of those critics of the current regime who has steadfastly refused to sign any of the dozen or so petitions floating around, asking for the release of photojournalist Shahidul Alam.

And I have no desire to do so despite regular entreaties by friends to sign this one or that one, addressing this organization or that organization.

Before you assume that Esam has suddenly been “purchased” by the government of Bangladesh -- as behooves our typical conspiratorial mindset -- hear me out. 

As a lifelong believer in, and advocate for, pluralist multi-party representative democracy, free elections, free press, free speech, and independent judiciary, I can never not be a critic of the current ruling dispensation in Dhaka. 

Au contraire, it is precisely the tug of my principles which keeps me away from appending my name to a petition to free one individual while ignoring a draconian state-sponsored system of (in)justice that regularly makes thousands of other, far less prominent, people disappear into the gulag of Bangladesh’s myriad of unaccountable law enforcement agencies for no other crime than voicing democratic dissent. 

Some, like the former elected Member of Parliament Ilyas Ali, are never heard from again. In true style of the 1970s-1980s Dirty Wars in Latin America.

The manner in which Shahidul was apprehended, the spurious charges that were laid against him, the timing of the arrest, and the signs of torture on his countenance make it plain to me -- as they do to most observers who are free to voice that perspective -- that the whole drama was in direct contravention of the constitution, the laws, and the higher judicial pronouncements on the rights of citizens.  

It was his immense stature and global connections that got him out of remand -- the euphemist for police torture behind closed doors -- and shifted first to a hospital and then to the relative safety of the central jail. 

Most others have not been so lucky by a hundred miles. Making the issue that of freeing one victim, while leaving the machinery of repression intact, serves only the purpose of virtue-signaling on the discount by paying a small price of signing a mostly unnecessary petition, while feeling relieved that you did something big.  

It lets you feel vindicated on the cheap, while in reality, you did nothing. Trust me, given the best legal muscle at home that money can buy and the most vocal support abroad that celebrity can purchase, Shahidul will be out of state confinement in a matter of weeks.

Most others will never even get their day in court, and their plea to the judiciary to protect their constitutional rights will go unanswered. It is these ordinary people who need the help; and the only way they can be helped is by reforming a state machinery where law enforcement, prosecution, shadowy intelligence agencies, and courts are merely arms of the same Leviathan who serves the regime of the day.

Bring me a petition addressed to a useful recipient and advocating for meaningful elections in Bangladesh, and I will sign it in a heartbeat, because without an actually elected government, any other reform is wishful thinking.  

Send me a petition begging the judiciary in Bangladesh to proactively defend the constitutionally enshrined fundamental rights of the people, and I will put my name on it without blinking an eye, because the supreme job of a supreme judiciary is the protection of basic citizen rights from the depredations of the executive. 

Ask me to support petitions that tie global engagement with Bangladesh to its government’s tolerance of dissenting speech and you will have it wholeheartedly, because without free speech there is no free citizenry. 

But ask me not to help you mollify your conscience by putting my name on a petition that is symbolic in its existence and doubly symbolic in its essence. The thousands who have either disappeared or been packed into jails without any verdict of a court need your voices far more than the celebrity few whose powerful friends at home and abroad are already working to spring them free.

Shahidul Alam’s treatment is a travesty of the law; that of thousands of his fellow dissenters without his celebrity profiles is the tragedy of a nation. 

The former is a symptom, the latter the cause. Fix the tragedy, and you will not have to deal with travesties. 

Esam Sohail is a college administrator and lecturer of social sciences. He writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]