Protestors artfully demand the release of Shahidul Alam, Bangladesh's prisoner of conscience

People gathered at the Shahbag Square in the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka wearing masks to protest the detention of internationally acclaimed photographer Shahidul Alam and other students. Image by Pranabesh Das, used with permission.

Detained Bangladeshi photojournalist Shahidul Alam has once again been denied bail in a case filed under the Information, Communication and Technology Act (ICT) for instigating “students to continue a [recent] movement against the government” and “spreading propaganda against the government”. Alam and his acquaintances deny those charges.

Meanwhile, protests continued at home and abroad to release the photographer and other detained students. A number of students got bail a few weeks ago, but an unknown number are still detained.

Alam was detained on August 5, 2018, officially arrested the next day, and ultimately sued under the ICT Act, to which his counsels submitted the bail petition on August 28.

On September 4, a two-member High Court bench felt ‘embarrassed’ to hear Alam's bail in the case. In Bangladeshi judicial practice, the judges can sometimes feel embarrassed to entertain cases demanding a fair and impartial dispensation of justice, especially if any party in the case is personally known, directly or indirectly, or if they fear they will be threatened or intimidated. Alam's counsels appealed to the High Court who directed the lower court concerned with the case to dispose of the plea by Tuesday.

Arrested for expressing his views

Alam was arrested in August after covering the student protests against ineffective traffic laws in Bangladesh on his Facebook and Twitter accounts and discussed the protests on Facebook Live.

Thousands of secondary school students in the capital city of Dhaka took to the streets on July 29 in sustained protests lasing more than a week, demanding improved road safety and rule enforcement after two of their classmates were killed due to reckless driving by a public bus.

Alongside his social media coverage of the protests, Alam gave a television interview with Al Jazeera where he talked about the recent situation in Bangladesh and criticized the government.

Global outcry, artful protest

A number of international agencies, Nobel laureates, photography professionals, journalists and human rights organizations have urged the Bangladesh government to release Alam.

Indian writer Arundhati Roy, American linguist Noam Chomsky, Canadian author Naomi Klein, American playwright Eve Ensler and Indian journalist Vijay Prasad have issued their second statement to the Bangladesh government to drop charges against Alam.

Amnesty International has declared Shahidul Alam as Amnesty International prisoner of conscience.

In Bangladesh, numerous protests and solidarity rallies have been organized in the past weeks to demand the unconditional release of Shahidul Alam and other detained protesters.

On September 4, the Drik Gallery hosted an exhibition of selected photos of Alam titled “A Struggle for Democracy” to highlight his struggles and honor the fact that he founded the picture gallery 29 years ago.

Alam is also the founder of the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, a school of photography and multimedia journalism, and the Chobi Mela, a biannual International Festival of Photography.

On Sunday, September 9, a public gathering titled “Let democracy be free” was held at Shahbag Square in Dhaka to protest Alam's imprisonment along with several other students. Some of the images can found in this Instagram post:

Participants used art and performance to express their grievances.

One woman wore a paper bag which read “We are not supposed to have heads” and “we don't have tongues, words”. Another protestor sang and played guitar while wearing a makeshift cage. In front of the cage, a helmet and hammer were placed, signifying the pro-government vigilantes wearing helmets who attacked the student protestors using hammers.

A duct-taped camera was displayed along with a banner beside it that read “Let Democracy Be Free”.

“Let Democracy be free”. An innovative protest in Shahbag Square in Dhaka, demanding the release of Shahidul Alam. Image by Pranabesh Das, used with permission.

Worldwide solidarity

Protests in solidarity have been also arranged abroad in cities like London, New York, and Washington DC:

Instagram's visual protests

Alam's niece, London-based Sofie Karim, activated the visual power of Instagram to protest her uncle's detention:

View this post on Instagram

My uncle loves the world and the world loves him. Friends at @visapourlimage International photojournalism festival (France), NY, Washington DC and London – thank you so much. Love and truth beat torture and repression. Break the dark machinery of paranoia with your light. #freeshahidulalam – For my incarcerated uncle @shahidul001, prisoner of conscience. Link to petition in my bio. Please share this post freely. @hansulrichobrist @tate @liverpoolbiennial @whitechapelgallery @alessio_antoniolli @annemcneill215 @impgalleryphoto @icp @thephotographersgallery @bobandrobertasmith @fionabradleyxx @francesmarymorris @cammockhelen @joe_scotland @johnakomfrah @ikongallery @lubainapics @mahtabhussain @martinparrstudio @martinparrfdn @aceagrams @polly.staple @nicholascullinan @rachelwords @ranabegumstudio @autographabp @nadavkander @mack_books @loubuck01 @theartnewspaper.official @artnet @guardian @thetimes @jamesestrin

A post shared by SOFIAKARIM (@_sofiakarim_) on

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Arrow Through the Heart of Bangladesh Art: Screenshot of article in today’s The Art Newspaper @theartnewspaper.official with my imprisoned uncle’s @shahidul001 punjabi shirt trim. Artist friends please read this important article. @shahidul001 is one of Bangladesh’s leading art and humanitarian activism figures, with international reach. His (and hundreds of others’) treatment by the state of Bangladesh, changes everything for the art scene there. The state wants silence, but forcibly mute art has little credibility. @theartnewspaper.official @nytimes @washingtonpost @time @thetimes @financialtimes @skynews @guardian @itvnews @bbc @channel4 @cnn @dhakatribune @newage_bd2011 @dhakaartsummit @dailystarbd @bdnews24.comm @unitednewsofbangladesh@indiartfair @kochibiennale @kochibiennalefoundation @the_hindu @indianexpress @kathmandupost.official @lemondefr @indiaartfair @amnesty @peninternational @tatemodern_official @themuseumofmodernart @thephotographersgallery @photographmag @royalphotographicsociety @commonwealthinstitute @autographabp #freeshahidulalam #censorship #bangladesh #bangladeshprotest #asianart #contemporaryart #photography #royalphotographicsociety #blackphotography

A post shared by SOFIAKARIM (@_sofiakarim_) on

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‘Tell Someone’ (for my incarcerated uncle, photographer @shahidul001). When I was a child my uncle taught me: “if someone does anything bad to you, the best thing is to tell as many people as possible straight away. Don’t hide it, fearing others may not believe you. It won’t go away. Your best protection is to let people know and tell the perpetrator you are letting people know. But be transparent. Say what you say in front of everyone, including the perpetrator”. When he shouted that statement about his blood stained punjabi in those few moments he had, in front of the police, in front of the world, I knew he was applying that theory. He told the world and he let the perpetrator know that he told the world. (My son’s painting of the Bangladesh flag, on my aunt Rahnuma Ahmed’s sari). #freeshahidulalam @theartnewspaper.official @nytimes @washingtonpost @time @thetimes @financialtimes @skynews @guardian @itvnews @bbc @channel4 @cnn @dhakatribune @newage_bd2011 @dhakaartsummit @dailystarbd @bdnews24.comm @unitednewsofbangladesh@indiartfair @kochibiennale @kochibiennalefoundation @the_hindu @indianexpress @kathmandupost.official @lemondefr @indiaartfair @amnesty @peninternational @tatemodern_official @themuseumofmodernart @thephotographersgallery @photographmag @royalphotographicsociety @commonwealthinstitute @autographabp #freeshahidulalam #censorship #bangladesh #bangladeshprotest #asianart #contemporaryart #childrensart #photography #royalphotographicsociety #blackphotography#humanrights #prisonerofconscience

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More protest art is available through Karim's Instagram account and her interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

London-based Bangladeshi legal consultant Dr. Rayhan Rashid expressed his reactions about the denial of Alam's bail on Facebook:

‪Disgraceful cowardice on the part of the judiciary and the ruling Awami League government in Bangladesh! When a regime is governed by nothing but fear, it is often a sign that the regime might have lost its plot. Weaponising fear as a tool to govern citizens, or trying to act tough – do not hide who are the afraid ones here!

A nationwide demonstration has been called for by student organizations on September 17 if Shahidul Alam and other student leaders are not released.


  • When I was at university, I went to the theatre at Mahila Samity. There was a play called ‘The Captain Of Kopenick’. It was about a man who could have his own way – only after he donned a military uniform. This was a blatant mockery of the military – and General Ershad was the military ruler at the time. However, no one was persecuted. I saw the full play, and went home. That was that.

  • Democracy in Bangladesh was stillborn.

    According to the constitution, when the president resigns, the vice-president takes over as president. However, when General Ershad resigned, Moudud Ahmed, then vice-president, not only was not allowed to become president, but was in fact jailed! (And with the full connivance of the western donors.) But that’s not all the scandal. Guess who became the new president? The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court – in direct violation of the constitution of which he was supposed to be the chief guardian! But there’s more. A few months later, the late Justice B B Row Chowdhury of the Supreme Court declared the arrest of Moudud Ahmed illegal. On the basis of this judgement, the five justices of the Supreme Court declared General Ershad’s arrest and detention illegal. With beginnings like these, what more can we expect from our democracy?

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