Cartoonist freed

MARCH 21, 2008
Posted March 24, 2008

Arifur Rahman, Prothom Alo

Arifur Rahman was freed from Dhaka Central Jail after the police officer who had filed a case against him failed to appear in court hearings because he was in East Timor, The Associated Press reported.

The 23-year-old freelance cartoonist was arrested on September 18, 2007. The day before, the satirical supplement of the daily Prothom Alo newspaper published his cartoon of a boy calling a cat “Muhammad,” following the Muslim custom of putting “Muhammad” before a male given name. When the Muslim community demonstrated against the cartoon, which was deemed offensive, Prothom Alo apologized and fired the deputy editor, according to news reports.

Rahman’s detention was based on a preventative order issued under emergency rules that allow pre-emptive detentions to be made based on the country’s Special Powers Act of 1974. The order was issued on September 19 and extended twice, in November and in January, according to a copy of a court document obtained by CPJ. The order was issued to prevent Rahman from committing “a prejudicial act” against public order, according to the document.

Yet the day after his detention, Rahman was charged with having already committed an offense, that of damaging religious sentiment. This charge, filed by an officer of Tejgaon police station under Section 295A of the penal code of Bangladesh, specifically referenced the “publication” of the cartoon, Rahman’s lawyer, Sara Hossain, told CPJ.

A February 4 judgment by the High Court of Bangladesh declared Rahman’s original detention to be without lawful authority, according to a copy of the verdict obtained by CPJ. Yet bail petitions on Rahman’s behalf were delayed, pending the resolution of the remaining criminal charge, until the officer’s repeated non-appearance led the court to drop the case.

“He cannot be held in detention for simply making a statement, when the threat to law and order comes, not from his statement, but from the acts of intimidation and violence threatened against him by others,” Hossain told CPJ.

The Emergency Powers Rules of 2007, which reenact some sections of the notoriously controversial 1974 Special Powers Act, have been in place since the interim government took over in Bangladesh in January 2007. Human rights groups and the United Nations Development Program have said that sections of the Special Powers Act pertaining to preventative detentions are vague and open to abuse.

Rahman, a self-taught cartoonist from a village in Sirajganj district, northern Bangladesh, has twice been recognized for his cartoons against corruption, by Transparency International Bangladesh in 2006, and by the English-language Daily Star, who awarded him first prize in a national anti-corruption cartoon competition in the month before his detention.