First, a journalist goes missing for two months and when found, the authorities arrest him under two draconian laws. His son now awaits justice.
Monorom Polok was never an activist before March of this year. A final year student at Jagannath University — a 150-year-old institution in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka— Polok, 21, almost always watched student politics from afar, staying away from campus processions and other forms of protest politics.
Polok’s father, Shafiqul Islam Kajol, a Dhaka-based photojournalist and editor of local newspaper “Daily Pakkhakal”, went missing on March 10. Just a day earlier, a lawmaker from Bangladesh's ruling party filed a lawsuit against Kajol under the notorious Digital Security Act (DSA). He was accused of circulating “false, fabricated and defamatory” news on Facebook.
The contested news was published in a reputed news daily called “Manabjamin.” Kajol wasn't the author of it. He only shared it on the social media platform.
“My father didn’t know anything about the case because he went missing from March 10, and the case was filed on March 9 at 11.30 pm, almost close to midnight. So it got to the mainstream media around the time my father disappeared.”
As Kajol disappeared the following day, Polok filed a missing person’s report at a local police station. He was not satisfied with the police investigation, however.
“The law enforcement personnel didn’t show any intent to find him,” Polok told TRT World. “For me it became a futile routine to the police station every day, where I am being repeatedly told they have found 'no trace of my father'. I also went to the office of RAB (an elite police force) and two more detective branches but the response was the same.”
The police inaction made Polok suspect the government's role in his father’s disappearance. The phenomenon of enforced disappearances is nothing new in Bangladesh. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), from January 1, 2009 to July 31, 2020, at least 572 people have vanished, reportedly after security forces and law enforcement agencies abducted or secretly arrested them in the South Asian nation.
“Failing to get any response from police or any government agencies, I thought of starting a campaign to find my father,” said Polok.
But then came the pandemic. On March 26, the Bangladeshi government declared a nationwide coronavirus shutdown, forcing Polok to take the campaign online.
“The lockdown made everyone to be more focused on social media. So I started organizing the campaign through a Facebook page: “Where is Kajol?” I also organized live discussions with journalists, teachers, artists, photographers, lawyers and human-rights activists. My main aim was to keep the discussion about my father’s disappearance alive.”
On May 3, some 53 days later, Kajol was found in Jessore—a district near the Indian border, some 200 kilometres away from the capital Dhaka.
A legal limbo
The Border Guard of Bangladesh (BGB) discovered Kajol in a field. He was blindfolded, with his legs and arms tied up with ropes. The BGB charged Kajol with trespassing the border and handed him over to the police.
Hearing about his father's arrest, Polok immediately went to the border town to negotiate Kajol's release. He was able to secure bail in the trespassing case from the local court.
But instead of setting Kajol free, the police whisked him away into a prison van. Polok was later told that his father was detained under Section 54 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), a law used to arrest anyone under suspicion, without requiring evidence or proof.
“What happened afterward was a legal limbo. Detention under section-54 is a bailable case, like the trespassing one. But there were three different cases filed against him under the Digital Security Act. So even though the Section-54 case was dismissed on May 20, he couldn’t get out of jail. On June 26, the police records showed him as 'arrested' in one of the DSA cases,” said Polok.
By then, the Bangladeshi government had ended its Covid-19 shutdown. Polok thought of taking his protest out onto the street. “I started standing with placards in different parts of the capital demanding my father’s freedom and the abolishment of DSA.”
At stake in the case was more than just the liberty of Kajol, said Polok. “If a person can be arrested just because of sharing a Facebook post, then the very law under which the arrest was made should be put under critical scanner.”
“It should be abolished,” Polok said, “Otherwise all the dissenting voices will be pushed back into shadows.”
A draconian act
Speaking to TRT World, Kajol’s lawyer Jotirmoy Barua said that since June 26, Kajol has been denied bail 13 times in all the three DSA cases.
“The DSA is such a draconian act, with overly broad dimensions, which have been used to imprison, intimidate, and penalize journalists and social media users alike. The DSA has also been used to justify invasive forms of surveillance,” said Barua.
Only this year, there have been 50 cases of detentions under the DSA, according to the Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB). Since the Act came into effect in 2018, 180 journalists have been sued. In 2019, 38 journalists were victims of lawsuits, harassment and arrests, the TIB data added.
More worryingly, Barua said, the Act enables the Bangladesh police force to arrest anyone without a warrant. “The slightest suspicion that a crime may be committed using digital media is enough for the police to arrest people — even children.”
Saad Hammadi, South Asia Campaigner for Amnesty International told TRT World that failure to secure even a bail in a case where Kajol should not have been detained in the first place “is a travesty of the rule of law and justice in Bangladesh.”
“No one should be punished for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression. Kajol is a victim not a perpetrator of a crime and he must be immediately and unconditionally released,” said Hammadi.
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia Director of HRW said that the Bangladeshi authorities should not only release Kajol, but should “launch an investigation to identify those that abducted and held him illegally for nearly two months.”
“In addition to the political attack on Kajol’s freedom of expression, we are deeply concerned about Kajol’s health and the increased risk he now faces of contracting Covid-19 in Bangladesh’s overcrowded prisons,” Ganguly told TRT World.
Polok is worried about his father’s health. “The concern of my father catching Covid-19 really worries us. He has pre-existing health conditions which put him in the vulnerable group for coronavirus.”
Polok now feels exhausted and overwhelmed. The burden of sustaining the protests he started has been emotionally and physically draining.
“In the past one month, I have stopped protesting on the street. My whole family is in an emotional and financial turmoil now,” he said.
“It is so frustrating. Every time we appeared in the court to secure a bail, we went home empty handed. It seems all the protests (of mine) were for nothing.”