It was quite a sight. Viewers of television channels and readers of the dailies that carried the images of incarcerated journalist Rozina Islam were baffled at the scale of security measures taken by the state. A sea of police personnel was accompanying the accused, being taken to the magistrate's office to face charges. No, it was not the dreadful serial killer Ershad Sikder, the ruthless series bomber Bangla Bhai, or the "bandit queen" Phoolan Devi. The accused in question was a decorated journalist of the largest circulated daily of the country, Prothom Alo.
On Monday, Rozina was detained for more than five hours in the hub of the country's administration, Bangladesh Secretariat, against her wishes. She was allegedly harassed, manhandled and abused by her captors that included senior functionaries of the state. Her mobile phone was confiscated and her handbag violated. Unable to withstand the physical and mental trauma, the journalist with a blood pressure condition fell sick and threw up a few times during the period of her captivity. She was subsequently transferred to the Shahbag police station instead of a hospital (contrary to the information provided to the media and family members). Later, Islam was charged under various provisions of the Penal Code, 1860 for theft and the Official Secrets Act, 1923 on suspicion of photographing government documents without permission. Finally, after being held overnight at the police station, she was presented before a magistrate on Tuesday, who rejected the police petition for 5-day remand and also denied her bail and committed her to prison pending bail hearing on Thursday.
While the state claims that Islam's actions (if not thwarted) would have led to revelation of non-disclosure clauses signed for procurement of Covid-19 vaccines from China and Russia, resulting in grievous harm to its interest, her lawyer accused the health ministry of targeting Islam because of her recent reports exposing alleged graft in the public health system. "It was a false case and the sections of the laws mentioned in the case were conflicting with each other," he further claimed.
Islam's sister denied that the journalist took any photographs or document from the ministry. She further alleged that "some employees tried to put some papers in her bag at the ministry room."
The treatment of Rozina Islam at the hands of the state authorities was marked by a series of violations of rights and laws. Likewise, the charges pressed against her appear to be frivolous and a reflection of vendetta against a journalist who dared to step outside the box, being loyal to her profession. The actions of the state against Islam raise a number of concerns.
First, Islam's detention against her wishes by the state authorities within the Secretariat premises for more than five hours is a violation of her right under Article 32 of the Constitution and Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966. While the ministry officials claimed that she was handed over to the police soon after they arrived to the "crime scene", the law enforcement agency contested such an assertion. Notwithstanding this wrangling, the fact remains that Islam was not legally detained during this period.
Second, images are rife in print, electronic and social media about the physical and psychological harms that Islam had to endure at the hands of her detainers. Most prominent among those was the image of attempted throttling by an Additional Secretary of the concerned ministry. Clearly, these images convey the message that Islam was deeply distraught and frightened. Physically harming a person in such a situation is a violation of the High Court directive on the Bangladesh versus BLAST case, 2004.
Third, under such a stressful condition, a hypertensive Islam threw up a few times. In all likelihood, her condition had aggravated as she secured her Covid-19 vaccination that very day. From the images available, there is little doubt that she needed immediate healthcare. Denying access to healthcare to an individual under the custody of the state is also a criminal offence. The authorities also need to explain what prompted them to misinform the media and the family of the victim that Islam was being taken to the hospital for treatment when, in reality, she was being shifted to the police station.
Fourth, so far, the state has failed to back up its claim that Islam illegally took photographs of sensitive state documents in breach of the law. One does not need to be very smart to surmise that to frame an individual, one can easily take shots with a cell phone either without the knowledge of its owner or by forcibly seizing the device from them. Images have also circulated that show Islam was resisting the forcible seizure of her cell phone. Isn't confiscation of personal items a breach of the privacy law according to article 43 of the Constitution that guarantees, among other things, privacy of "means of communication"?
Fifth, in a television interview, the health minister was at pains to establish the "grave harm" that the alleged act would have caused the country. He also admitted that Islam entered "the empty room without authorisation". Clearly, those in charge of the security of the Secretariat, particularly the rooms that house such "highly sensitive documents", have a major responsibility to ensure adequate protection of such premises. One would argue that easy access of a random individual to highly sensitive documents in an unguarded empty room, as alleged by the minister, is a grave dereliction of duty. Instead of blaming the alleged perpetrator without furnishing proof, there is a serious case for introspection for those who have been vested with ensuring security and protection of sensitive documents and data.
Sixth, after she was brought to the Shahbag police station, the officer-in-charge refused to grant her bail. If a sick mother of a little child with considerable professional reputation does not qualify to merit such discretion, one wonders about the yardstick against which such decisions are taken. Likewise, despite the fact that all charges brought against Islam were bailable, the magistrate in his wisdom decided to commit her to prison, for at least three days. There is nothing to suggest that Islam posed a flight risk, nor was she a threat to public security. One wonders under what consideration was she denied bail. Does not "postponing bail hearing amount to denying bail"?
And finally, the allegation of breach of Official Secrets Act, 1923 is also problematic on two counts. A cursory glance at the text of this legal instrument proves that it is essentially an anti-espionage law. This is evident from the umpteen references to "defence establishment", "arsenal", "naval, military or air force", "military telephone, telegraph and wireless facilities, wireless stations", "dockyards", "munitions of war", "submarines, aircrafts, tanks and torpedoes", "railway, road, air and channels" and the like. Islam has not been accused of being a spy of any country, and thus charging her under the Official Secrets Act is frivolous, to say the least.
Likewise, shouldn't the Official Secrets Act be considered a dead law in a country that takes pride in framing the Right to Information Act, 2009 recognising the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and ensuring transparency and accountability for establishing good governance, and the Public Interest Information Disclosure Act, 2011 extending protection and safeguards to whistleblowers? As a nation fifty years after independence, shouldn't the authorities refrain from taking refuge to these colonial vestiges?
There is little doubt that the treatment meted out to veteran journalist Rozina Islam was a gross violation of the law and the charges brought against her are baseless. In all likelihood, these efforts are an attempt to silence a beacon of ethical journalism, a rarity in these trying times. The state should immediately withdraw the charges against her, offer unconditional apology and hold the perpetrators of the wrongdoings to account.
C R Abrar is an academic with interest in human rights and migration. He acknowledges the insights from his Nagorik colleagues Barrister Jyotirmoy Barua and Rezaur Rahman Lenin.