Having spent more than two years behind bars for a crime he did not commit, Hasnat Karim walked out of prison Thursday after a court cleared him of involvement in the 2016 Holey Artisan Bakery café attack that killed 29 people.
Karim’s wife, Sharmina Parveen, told BenarNews he was released at 4 p.m. from the Kashimpur prison in Gazipur, about 19 kilometers (12 miles) from Dhaka, and left around 4:30 p.m.
“My father has received him at the jail gate. We are happy, what I can say? He is back to us,” Parveen said. "Thank you all who wrote for us."
Karim was celebrating his daughter’s birthday with family members when the militants burst in and took hostages, most of them foreigners, who were killed within 12 hours. Karim arrived at the café less than an hour before the attackers came, but police considered him a suspect after witnesses said at the time that he agreed to act as a human shield.
On Wednesday, the Anti-Terrorism Tribunal in Dhaka accepted the police charge sheet exonerating Karim as investigators found that he had no link to the five militants, who were killed by military commandos.
The court accepted a charge sheet against eight other militants who allegedly were involved in planning and carrying out the worst terror attack in the nation’s history.
Defense attorney Sanowar Hossain told BenarNews the court sent a discharge order to the jail authorities to release Karim, a former teacher at North South University.
“There are lots of formalities to get him free. So, the whole day passed for his discharge,” he said.
Mizanur Rahman, former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, slammed the government for keeping Karim locked up.
“The state is bound to protect the human rights of all of its citizens. Instead, we see many people like Hasnat Karim have been languishing in jails without trial,” he told BenarNews.”This is totally unacceptable. This is an utter violation of human rights.”
He said the judiciary could have released Karim as soon as the police charge sheet revealed he was not involved.
Amnesty International (AI) also took the Bangladesh government to task for Karim’s incarceration.
“Hasnat Karim and his family were victims of a terror attack. They should have never have been forced through two years of further trauma with Karim suffering unfairly behind bars – detained without charge and denied specialized medical treatment that saw his health deteriorate,” said Kate Allen, AI director in Britain.
“Karim’s detention was inhumane and illegal," she said. "The end of his suffering is a cause for celebration, but we must not forget that, sadly, he is not alone in being a target of the Bangladeshi authorities’ arbitrary force of law.”
The five members of Neo-Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (Neo-JMB) stormed the café in Dhaka’s upscale diplomatic quarter on July 1, 2016, killing 20 people including nine Italians, seven Japanese, one Indian and three Bangladeshis. Two police and two café workers died in the attack along with the militants whose group, Neo-JMB, is aligned with the Islamic State (IS).
Police focused on Karim’s possible links with the militants after the attackers allowed him and his family to leave less than an hour before the commandos stormed the café on July 2.
Allegations also surfaced that Karim’s mobile phone was used to send photos of victims during the attack. As militants remained in the café, IS media uploaded the photos of the victims and released the photos and identity of the attackers, claiming responsibility.
The government denied IS presence in Bangladesh, saying the attackers belonged to the homegrown militant group Neo-JMB.
Police arrested Karim, a dual citizen of Bangladesh and Britain, on Aug. 2, 2016.
Investigators later concluded the attackers snatched Karim’s mobile phone and sent the photos to another militant who forwarded them to Neo-JMB leaders.
“He was a victim of circumstance,” Monirul Islam, chief of counterterrorism unit of the police, told BenarNews on July 23.
Police submitted the charge sheet that day, bringing terrorism charges against 21 militants – 13 of whom were killed by law enforcers. Along with Karim, the charge sheet cleared the two café employees, who were killed in the attack.
Of the remaining eight, six are in custody and two are on the lam. The court on Wednesday issued arrest warrants for the two fugitives.