November 30, 2000
Her Excellency Sheikh Hasina
Prime Minister, People's Republic of Bangladesh
Office of the Prime Minister
VIA FAX: 011-88-02-811-3244
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply disturbed by your administration's multi-pronged attack against the Bengali-language daily newspaper Inqilab, which has been accused of treason for publishing a parody of the Bangladesh national anthem.
M. Mainuddin, director of the Inqilab Group of Publications, is currently in jail under Bangladesh's notorious Special Powers Act. Inqilab editor A.M.M. Bahauddin and publisher A.S.M. Baki Billah face multiple treason charges, as does the author of the parody, A.S. Mosharraf. Your government has exerted considerable pressure on the judiciary to deny these journalists' petitions for anticipatory bail.
Finally, leaders from the ruling Awami League have actively encouraged party activists to block distribution of Inqilab throughout the country, and have sanctioned the use of violence to achieve this end.
Inqilab, which promotes Islamist principles and is opposed to the secular policies of Your Excellency's government, is one of the highest-circulation newspapers in Bangladesh. On October 20, the paper published a parody of the national anthem that mocked your administration.
On November 6, the Awami League Working Committee met at Your Excellency's residence and decided to take action against Inqilab. Within days, various Awami League leaders had filed treason charges against Inqilab in districts around the country. Today, cases are pending in the capital city of Dhaka, as well as in Jamalpur, Madaripur, Mymensingh, Magura, and Chandpur. (On November 28, a High Court judge stayed the bulk of these cases for one month.)
On November 13, the Home Ministry filed its own complaint with the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate's Court in Dhaka, accusing Bahauddin, Baki Billah, and Mosharraf of sedition under Section 124A of the Penal Code. Arrest warrants were issued that same day. Under the Penal Code, people found guilty of sedition can be sentenced to life in prison, or even death.
Shortly before midnight, police raided the Dhaka offices of Inqilab, as well as the residences of the paper's editor and publisher, but failed to find the journalists. But the next morning, on November 14, police arrested Mainuddin, the head of the Inqilab Group and the brother of Bahauddin and Baki Billah, under the broad provisions of the Special Powers Act (SPA), which allows for the arbitrary arrest and detention of any citizen suspected of engaging in activities that threaten national security. Under the SPA, detainees can be held for up to three months without a court hearing, and police are not required to file formal charges against them. As of today, Mainuddin remains in Dhaka Central Jail.
Bahauddin, fearing imminent arrest, applied for anticipatory bail that evening. At 11:40 p.m. on November 14, a High Court Division of the Supreme Court granted ad-interim bail to Bahauddin until November 20, when a second hearing was scheduled for the government to defend its argument that the bail application should be denied.
Senior administration officials, including Your Excellency, vehemently criticized the High Court's action and publicly questioned the propriety of the unprecedented late-night session. CPJ sources in Bangladesh say the ruling party has applied pressure on judges and defense lawyers to dissuade them from supporting Inqilab in this case.
Bahauddin is now free on bail until December 5, and police have made no further attempts to arrest Baki Billah and Mosharraf. But all three men remain vulnerable to arrest in the future.
Meanwhile, there have been a series of attacks designed to curb the circulation of Inqilab. On November 20, Abdul Hasnat Abdullah, an Awami League official, announced at a meeting organized by party officials in the southern town of Barisal that Inqilab was banned in the southern region. The next day, 900 copies of the newspaper were burnt by Awami League activists in Barisal, according to a report published in The Independent, a Dhaka-based national daily. Local distributors of the newspaper were also threatened and harassed.
On November 22, Awami League activists stopped a minibus at the Shikarpur ferry landing, on the Dhaka-Barisal highway, and burned 4,000 copies of Inqilab, as well as 400 copies of the weekly Purnima, which is also published by the Inqilab Group. On November 28, a mob attacked the Inqilab office in Khulna, damaged a press vehicle parked outside, and harassed a local newspaper agent for distributing the paper.
As a nonpartisan organization of journalists dedicated to the defense of press freedom around the world, CPJ condemns your government's persecution of Inqilab. We respectfully urge you to order the immediate release of M. Mainuddin, who has been wrongfully detained under a vague and, in CPJ's view, illegitimate statute. If Mainuddin is suspected of criminal activity, then the authorities should file formal charges against him and present evidence in an open court.
CPJ also urges that you instruct the Home Ministry to drop the government-initiated sedition case against A.M.M. Bahauddin, A.S.M. Baki Billah, and A.S. Mosharraf, as we believe that no journalist should go to jail for what he or she writes.
As the leader of the Awami League, Your Excellency is responsible for ensuring that the party does not countenance abuses committed by its members. In our view, Bangladesh's national security is threatened far more by the vigilante tactics detailed above than by the publication of political satire.
We thank you for your attention to these urgent matters, and await your response.
Ann K. Cooper