Sunderland students and academics lead march over photographer jailed in Bangladesh
Staff and students from the University of Sunderland have called for the release of an internationally renowned photographer from a Bangladeshi prison.
Joined by campaigners and peace activists, more than 80 members of staff and students unveiled Shahidul Alam's photographs at the University’s Priestman Gallery.
The photojournalist and former visiting professor at the university has been in police custody since his arrest on August 5.
He was arrested following an interview he gave to broadcaster Al Jazeera in which he spoke about the government following issues raised during the then-ongoing student protests in Dhaka.
Academics and activists from Amnesty International gave speeches to the packed gallery before a procession carrying banners marched to the University’s Northern Centre of Photography.
Arabella Plouviez, Professor of Photography and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Creative Industries at the University of Sunderland, is a close friend of Shahidul.
She said: “Shahidul is calm, driven and unfailingly just – we are concerned for his safety and join his family and many friends in demanding his release from injustice.
“There has already been huge international support for the #freeshahidulalam campaign, which we know Shahidul is aware of and appreciates. We need to keep up the momentum and amplify the voices appealing to the Bangladeshi authorities.”
More than 20 universities are taking part in the #freeshahidulalam exhibition. The images displayed across the UK are from the exhibition recently shown at Drik in Dhaka, Bangladesh: A Struggle for Democracy - A Photo Journey by Shahidul Alam.
The call for Shahidul’s release is echoed by a myriad of international voices including 12 Nobel Laureates, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Hollywood actress and activist Sharon Stone, Amartya Sen, and several British MPs, including Sunderland Central MP Julie Elliott.
Ms Elliott said: “Mr Alam is well-known in Sunderland. He has forged close links with several academics. He has visited the city and the University many times, where he has delivered lectures to students. I am well aware of the esteem in which he is held by his colleagues at the University.
“His arrest is deeply unsettling. Bangladesh portrays itself as a democracy and, as such, it ought to uphold its citizens’ right to free speech and peaceful protest.
"A global campaign has been launched to highlight the plight of Mr Alam and the wider issue of the abuse of democracy by those who have imprisoned him."
The 63-year-old was taken from his home in the Dhanmondi neighbourhood of Dhaka by more than 30 members of the Dhaka metropolitan police and arrested for damaging “the image of the nation”.
Shahidul is now being held under the controversial section 57 of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, which carries up to 14 years in prison, and which has been used in more than 20 cases recently involving journalists.
Peter Fryer, associate lecturer at the university, gave a speech before today’s march.
He said: “I have known Shahidul for over 30 years as a friend and a colleague. Having first visited him in Bangladesh, he then invited me over to work with him, so I wanted to talk about what he’s achieved over those years in today’s speech, both photographically and in terms of the infrastructure he’s established in Bangladesh for the dissemination of photography.
“Shahidul has established such a huge worldwide network of photographers they can’t keep that many people quiet. What is being done today is small, compared to what’s going on worldwide, but it’s still important. I hope something happens before the end of the year, you just have to keep the momentum going in terms of the awareness of his situation.”
In court, the photographer claimed he was tortured in custody, an allegation which the police have denied but which has not been independently investigated.
After a seven-day remand, he was denied bail and sent to Dhaka Central Jail on August 13, where he has been remanded in custody pending the completion of the police investigation. His imprisonment was extended and he remains incarcerated.
Steve Newman, secretary of Wearside Amnesty International, said: “This has been classed as an urgent case by us since Shahidul was arrested in the summer.
“We have been in touch with the Bangladesh coordinator for Amnesty and we have already expressed concerns about the legislation under which he was taken into custody.”