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OP-ED: A prisoner’s tale

  • Published at 01:40 am December 1st, 2020
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Of fictitious cases, police brutality, and state-sanctioned intimidation

“Saleem Samad, a freelance reporter and local correspondent for the international press watchdog Reporters Sans Frontiers, was arrested earlier today (November 29, 2002) in connection with Channel 4,” writes The Guardian newspaper.

My arrest was made three days after British journalist Zaiba Malik and Italian cameraman Bruno Sorrentino who were commissioned by Channel 4 TV to produce a documentary on terrorism for its Unreported World, were also arrested along with their interpreter Priscilla Raj.

Journalist/film-maker Shahriar Kabir was also arrested under the sedition case. The rightist regime was enraged by his campaign for the trial of the war criminals of 1971.

The regime to harass critics also accused Advocate Rana Das Gupta (presently prosecutor of the International Crimes Tribunal) and former Dainik Janakantha’s Cox’s Bazar correspondent Tofael Ahmed.

During the repressive regime during 2002-2006 of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s (BNP) coalition with Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, at least 80 journalists were arrested and tortured -- another 200 journalists were slapped with trumped-up charges.

Scores of journalists were brutally attacked and were hospitalized, mostly in the southern districts -- from Satkhira to Bhola. Many fled their district for their safety, either after being physically attacked or receiving death threats.

The infamous Hawa Bhaban was the mastermind of harassment and intimidation -- which led to numerous arrests, including war crimes historian Prof Muntassir Mamun, Enamul Hoque Chowdhury (present editor of the Daily Sun), and journalist Barun Bhaumik Nayan, among many others. Both the journalists were brutalized during interrogation to sign fictitious confessional statements.

In a shameful move, the pro-government journalist leaders of Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ), Dhaka Union of Journalists (DUJ), and National Press Club refrained from protesting the arrests, torture, and intimidations of hundreds of journalists. Instead, the journalist leaders, spearheaded by Shaukat Mahmood, a journalist turned politician desired to “teach the journalists a lesson” with the blessing of Hawa Bhaban, the office of Tarique Rahman, and the rogue son of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.

It felt as if a thunderbolt struck me when Mozzem Hossain, a journalist of BBC Bangla in Bush House, London told me that the foreign journalists, Priscilla Raj, and the driver of a rented vehicle were arrested under a fictitious sedition case.

I quickly gave my first reaction to both BBC Bangla, BBC World Service, and numerous international media. The daily newspapers and private news channels had been agog with the sensational news of the detention of foreign journalists.

The news also splashed in major global media, as the regime’s “Operation Clean Heart” was squarely blamed for extra-judicial deaths and enforced disappearances of hundreds of opposition members deemed a threat to the ruling party. Janakantha newspaper reported that the FIR filed with Motijheel Police Station had only four names -- foreign journalists, an interpreter, and the name of a driver. 

Next to the driver’s name was the handwritten name “alias Saleem Samad.” My name was blue-pencilled by the Home Affairs Ministry, by the hybrid journalist leaders. 

My defense lawyers, Barrister Amirul Islam and Barrister Tania Amir, explained that I was neither aged 28, nor a driver by profession, and my parent’s name and address do not match the one mentioned in the police report. 

On the fourth day, the home of my parents in Pallabi, where I also lived with my family, was thoroughly searched for 28 (RPT 28) hours. 

My family was on the run, as security agencies wanted to retrieve the spare hard-disk from my son Atisha Rahbar. My parents were locked downstairs, while every inch of the two-storied house was thoroughly searched. All the books and documents were carefully scanned. 

On the fifth day, in the wee hours of Friday during the month of Ramadan, I was picked up by detectives from a flat in Uttara belonging to a Crack Platoon veteran, my school-mate Ishtiaq Aziz Ulfat. 

I was brought to the Detective Branch office at Mintoo Road. A delinquent police officer Kohinoor Miah attacked me with a baton and, also brandishing his service pistol on my forehead, accused me of betraying the country and slandering the image of the state. Well, it was Khaleda’s regime that smeared the country.

After 55 days, on the order of the High Court, I was freed on January 18, 2003.

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at [email protected]; Twitter @saleemsamad.

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