Over 120 days have passed since photojournalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol, also the editor of The Daily Pokkhokal, went missing after leaving his office on the evening of March 10. Fifty-three restless nights and days his family spent searching for him. Fifty-three days the media wondered aloud whether one of their own would return alive. Yet, for 53 days, the authorities showed little interest in finding what happened to Kajol.
This, despite the coincidental fact that the day before he disappeared (March 9), almost close to midnight (at 11:30 pm), a case was registered against Kajol under the infamous Digital Security Act, along with 31 others. As well as the presence of a CCTV footage from outside his office showing several unidentified men snooping around his motorbike—and at one point meddling with it—for at least three hours before he was to be last seen. It wasn't until a month and a half later that Kajol was suddenly "discovered" near the India-Bangladesh border by a BGB patrol—as the authorities claimed—in what appears to be a bizarre stroke of luck.
Instead of finding what happened to Kajol during those 53 days, the authorities immediately put all their effort to go after him. In fact, if one didn't know any better, one might think that Kajol had committed a violent crime judging by the way he has been treated since being "discovered" near the border, beginning with him being dragged into a local court in Jashore with his hands cuffed behind his back—in violation of a High Court directive in this regard.
Why weren't the authorities at all curious to know what had happened to him? Did they already know? If so, why haven't they shared it, not even with his family? These are reasonable questions. After all, according to Ain O Salish Kendra, between 2014 and August 2018, 310 people had disappeared in the country, of whom only 33 people have so far been "discovered"—and we know nothing about what had happened to them either.
The sheer number of disappearances and the state's outright failure to uncover and reveal what happened to those who disappeared have prompted even the United Nations Committee against Torture to question the government's claims and actions in those cases. But even if we accept that "the government is correct that the state-actors are not involved" with the many strange disappearances, then that "only means that non-state actors have become so powerful in the country that they can abduct anyone" and even "kill the abductees if they want," according to distinguished professor at Illinois State University, Ali Riaz. If that is the case, even then it is the government that is responsible for addressing this equally horrifying scenario.
So why did two police stations refuse to file a case of disappearance at the request of Kajol's family until a court intervened? And what explains the contrasting urgency with which the authorities accepted multiple cases lodged against Kajol by persons affiliated with the ruling party?
As if the ordeal he had to endure during the time that he was missing wasn't bad enough, the authorities charged Kajol for illegally entering Bangladesh under the Passport Act right after they had "discovered" him. And as soon as he received bail for that, he was again arrested under the Criminal Procedure Code Section 54, which allows police to arrest someone without a warrant and detain them for up to 15 days without a lawyer.
Even more ironically, during a bail hearing for that case on the 15th day of his detention, Kajol was refused bail on the ground that the magistrate had asked the police for a report which the police didn't submit even though the last day of submission was the day before. Finally, on May 20, the Section 54 case was dismissed after the police submitted the report and confirmed that several cases had been lodged against Kajol under the DSA.
Without going into further legal jargon, it can be said that what appears to be happening is that Kajol is being punished through a process that is ideally meant to deliver justice.
For more than 120 days, he has been denied his freedom in one way or another, and still, somehow Kajol is yet to receive his day in court. And, it was only on June 23 that he was arrested for the first time in the DSA case, after having spent 52 days in jail already on top of the 53 days during which he was missing.
How is that justice? And is this "actually" about justice?
So far, many artists, journalists, human rights defenders and others have emphasised that it is not, through their activism for Kajol, which may very well have led to his (relatively early) "discovery". And the huge number of people that have vehemently opposed the treatment of Kajol illustrates quite blatantly how the majority of people view this case.
And how they do is not how the authorities have tried to portray it, but more in line with what Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch said: "Bangladesh authorities are flouting the rule of law, arbitrarily arresting anyone they feel might be criticising the government... At a time when the government should be reducing the prison population to protect against the spread of Covid-19, they are locking people up simply for their comments on social media."
The authorities, of course as we all know, have repeatedly denied such allegations before. And will no doubt do so again. But the (mis)treatment of journalists—as in Kajol's case—that we have been witnessing for some time now, speaks much louder than empty rhetoric.
Eresh Omar Jamal is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.
His Twitter handle is: @EreshOmarJamal