Bangladesh has released renowned photographer Shahidul Alam on bail following his arrest over 100 days ago for comments he made during mass student protests.
A well-known figure in the South Asian journalist community, Alam was arrested on August 5 following an interview with Al Jazeera about student protests over street safety, during which he accused the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of clinging to power by “brute force.”
Alam, 63, was freed from Dhaka Central Jail on Tuesday night after being granted bail last week on charges of spreading rumors and false information via text messages and inciting violence against the state.
He told AFP he hoped his release would “signal freedom for many others” also detained during the demonstrations. “It is a fantastic feeling to be free in a free country, breathing free air. But I hope for freedom for everyone else,” he said.
The protests kicked off in the crowded capital Dhaka in late July after a privately-operated bus ran over a group of students, killing two and injuring several others.
Hasina, whose government has ruled Bangladesh since 2009, suggested her political rivals had used the protests to whip up public anger against the government ahead of a general election due in December. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by former prime minister Khaleda Zia, denied involvement.
Political feuding between the two leaders has overshadowed Bangladesh for decades.
Online supporters had used the hashtag #FreeShahidulAlam to call for his release and that of other activists imprisoned during the crackdown. While being physically escorted to court in August, Alam claimed he was tortured by police, an allegation authorities denied.
A joint statement signed by 25 human rights organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International, had called for Alam’s “immediate and unconditional release,” slamming the allegations against him as “a blatant violation of his right to freedom of expression.”
Amnesty International Deputy South Asia Director, Omar Waraich, told CNN “It is wonderful to see Shahidul Alam released on bail, he should never have been arrested in the first place. The charges against him, and others who have been locked up for peacefully exercising their human rights, should be immediately and unconditionally dropped.”
In October, Bangladesh passed a controversial new digital security law that rights groups fear could be used to further erode press freedoms and dissenting voices online. The Digital Security Act combines the colonial-era Official Secrets Act with new measures empowering police to make arrests without a warrant.
Bangladesh ranks 146th in the Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index, behind countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia and South Sudan. It has slipped from 118th when the index began in 2002.
The introduction of the new law came amid what campaigners allege is a widening repression of opposition voices ahead of the elections.
In a report released earlier this month, the Dhaka-based Odhikar group highlighted a worrying spate of what it called “enforced disappearances” of opposition leaders, students and activists.