Updated at 3:13 p.m. ET on 2018-11-20
Prominent Bangladeshi photojournalist Shahidul Alam walked out of jail Tuesday after 107 days in custody, after a court granted him bail last week in a case his supporters had labeled as a miscarriage of justice.
Alam emerged at around 8:20 p.m. from the Dhaka Central Jail in Keraniganj, a sub-district about 12 miles from the Bangladeshi capital, where authorities had confined him since his arrest in August on suspicion of violating the nation’s defamation laws.
“Every citizen in a free country should have freedom of speech,” Alam told reporters as he hugged his wife, Rahnuma Ahmed. “If a person in a free country does not have freedom of speech, it is not different from jail.”
Students and well-wishers cheered “Hoye! Hoye!” as the photographer came out of jail. Alam was taken to a hospital for checkup. Hours later, his wife told reporters they were on their way home.
Alam, whose detention has widely been seen as a test for freedom of speech in Bangladesh, was released after six attempts by his legal team to secure bail since he was taken into custody three and a half months ago.
A High Court panel granted Alam bail on Thursday, but he had to remain in jail for several more days as authorities waited to receive the court’s official bail and release order.
“I am glad that the jail authorities finally released him by obeying the High Court’s order,” Sara Hossain, Alam’s attorney, told BenarNews.
The arrest of the 63-year-old Alam, one of South Asia’s most acclaimed photojournalists, angered human rights and free press advocacy groups, which demanded the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina free him.
Asked late Tuesday how he had fared in prison, Alam said, "My suffering was very negligible, in comparison to others there."
He could still be charged for allegedly spreading “false and fabricated” content online about student-led protests over road safety that rocked the country in early August. The judges who granted him bail on Nov. 15 did not throw out the potential case against him.
During the protests, which flared after two students were killed by a speeding bus, Alam posted accounts about the demonstrations on Facebook Live.
He was arrested soon after giving an interview about the protests to the Al Jazeera network. Prosecutors allege that he defamed Hasina’s government in the interview by describing it as “unelected.”
In an opinion piece published in August by a U.S. media outlet, Hasina’s son Sajeeb Wazed said that Alam had incited violence by spreading false information about student deaths during the protests, in a bid to fan political violence in an election year.
“Police arrested Mr. Alam not because he held a contrary view but because his latest pronouncements caused real harm. Mr. Alam’s words helped transformed a peaceful protest into lawless violence,” he wrote.
Police took Alam from his home on Aug. 5, but authorities officially arrested him on Aug. 6.
“I was beaten. [They] washed my blood-stained Punjabi [shirt] and made me wear it again,” Alam called out to reporters on Aug. 6, while being escorted to a courthouse where he was remanded to seven days in custody for questioning.
Hasina told Reuters last month that she was convinced Alam spread what she described as “false news” about protests against her administration in August.
Hasina also said Alam, one of South Asia’s most-respected photographers, was “mentally sick.” She did not offer evidence for her statement.
Hasina, 71, is seeking a third consecutive term in an election scheduled for Dec. 30 amid growing opposition to what rights groups had described as an increasingly authoritarian rule.
“This entire episode has been a human rights outrage from the beginning,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told BenarNews. “It started with the Bangladesh government heaping rights abuses and indignities on Shahidul Alam simply because he dared speak the truth about the students’ bus protests to Al-Jazeera and the wider world.”
Robertson urged the government to drop any charges against Alam, return his bail money, and compensate him for time in detention.
“Journalism should not be considered a crime,” Robertson said. “PM Sheikh Hasina should be ashamed of her government’s politically motivated persecution designed to silence a critic who dared point out how officials were failing to ensure safety for youth confronted with reckless bus drivers.”