Police officers are seen in Ukhia, Bangladesh, on October 6, 2021. Police recently detained Nusrat Shahrin Raka, the sister of exiled journalist Kanak Sarwar. (Munir uz zaman/AFP)

Bangladesh authorities detain sister of exiled journalist Kanak Sarwar

Washington, D.C., October 6, 2021 — Bangladesh authorities must immediately release Nusrat Shahrin Raka, cease targeting journalists’ family members, and commit to allowing the media to operate without fear of reprisal, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Very early yesterday morning, officers with the police Rapid Action Battalion raided Raka’s home in Uttara, a suburb of Dhaka, and took her and her three sons to the battalion’s headquarters in Dhaka, according to news reports and Kanak Sarwar, a journalist and Raka’s brother, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview.

Sarwar, who lives in exile in the United States, told CPJ that he believed that the arrest was in retaliation for his journalism and that Raka, who is a homemaker, had not committed any crime.

Police repeatedly questioned Raka about Sarwar, asking why he opposed the Bangladesh government and calling him “a freedom fighter,” Sarwar told CPJ, saying that he was able to briefly speak on the phone with his sister in detention. He said that authorities released Raka’s sons after about 30 hours, but she remains detained in a cell with no bed.

The Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Court in Dhaka ordered Raka to be detained for five days, Sarwar said, adding that she suffers from asthma and has experienced difficulty breathing in custody as she is recovering from COVID-19. He also said that police broke several items inside the house during the raid, including closets and jewelry boxes.

Sarwar told CPJ that he believes all authorities’ accusations against his sister are false.

“Punishing exiled journalist Kanak Sarwar by arresting his sister, Nusrat Shahrin Raka, is a crude and barbaric form of retaliation that should shame the government of Bangladesh,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “Authorities must immediately release Raka, cease targeting critical journalists or their family members, and allow the media to operate without interference.”

In a press release issued yesterday, which CPJ reviewed, the Rapid Action Battalion alleged that Raka was involved in “destroying peace and order in the country by spreading false, defamatory, and provocative information about the government and important personalities of the state on social media” and accused her of involvement with an unnamed group engaging in “conspiratorial propaganda activities” with Sarwar.

The press release also claimed that authorities seized a mobile phone, passport, methamphetamine, and anti-state content from Raka’s home, and that she revealed during interrogation that she was an active member of an anti-state propaganda and conspiracy ring.

The Rapid Action Battalion filed two complaints at the Uttara West police station under the Digital Security Act and Narcotics Control Act, which CPJ reviewed.

The Digital Security Act complaint alleges that Raka violated three sections of the act: the publication of offensive, false, or threatening information; defamation; and the transmission or publication of content that deteriorates law and order. Each of those offenses can carry a prison sentence of three to seven years and a fine of 300,000 to 500,000 taka (US $3,497 to $5,827), according to that law.

The other complaint alleges that Raka possessed narcotics; under the Narcotics Control Act, Raka could face up to three years in prison if charged and convicted, according to Sarwar, citing her lawyer.

Sarwar told CPJ that a fake Facebook page had been created in recent weeks using Raka’s name, email address, and phone number, and that account published posts criticizing the government. Sarwar said that Raka filed a complaint to the Uttara West police station about that account on October 1, which CPJ reviewed.

The police complaint under the Digital Security Act cited posts made on that Facebook page, and attributed them to Raka.

Sarwar is the former senior correspondent for the privately owned broadcaster Ekushey TV; authorities held him from March 3 to November 16, 2015, on accusations of sedition after Ekushey TV broadcasted a speech by Tarique Rahman, the son of an opposition leader, according to CPJ research and Sarwar. He now operates the YouTube channel Kanak Sarwar News, which covers Bangladesh politics and has been critical of the ruling Awami League.

On December 8, 2020, the Bangladesh High Court directed authorities to block Sarwar’s social media pages after he interviewed a politician in Bangladesh on YouTube, as CPJ documented at the time.

CPJ emailed the Uttara West police station for comment, but did not receive any reply. CPJ called and messaged Ashique Billah, spokesperson of the Rapid Action Battalion, but did not receive any response.

[Editors’ note: This article has been changed in its fourteenth paragraph to correct the 2015 accusations against Sarwar.]