On October 29, 2020, Golam Sarwar, the then publisher and executive editor of the privately owned news website ctnewsbd.com, was abducted in Kazir Dewri, a neighborhood in the southeastern Bangladeshi city of Chittagong, according to multiple news reports and Sarwar, who spoke with CPJ via messaging app.
An unidentified man approached the journalist from behind, knocked him unconscious with chloroform, shoved him into an ambulance, and took him to an unidentified room beside a railway track, Sarwar told CPJ. In that room, Sarwar told CPJ that five men blindfolded him, tied him up, and repeatedly and severely beat him with belts and hard wooden objects, which he described as torture.
The abductors mocked him during the beatings, saying he was a “journalist with almost no fame” and that his life had “no security,” Sarwar said. They repeatedly asked whether he would report the news again and boasted that they would go unpunished even if they were to “kill another journalist.” Sarwar said the abductors never referred to any specific reporting as their reason for targeting him.
The abductors called a man they referred to as “sir” on speaker phone and asked whether they should kill Sarwar, the journalist told CPJ. That man called Sarwar a “small journalist” who was “exaggerating the news,” and told the abductors to “teach him a lesson, not to kill him,” Sarwar told CPJ.
The abductors also repeatedly called Sarwar’s wife and Jubayer Siddiqui, assistant editor of Ajker Surjodoy, where Sarwar worked as a staff reporter until the summer of 2020, to demand a ransom and to provide instructions to transfer the money, which they did not pay, Sarwar said.
Sarwar said the abductors solely gave him bread and water during his time in captivity.
On November 1, 2020, Sarwar was found unconscious, heavily bruised, and stripped of his clothes beside a canal in the Sitakunda municipality of Chittagong, according to multiple news reports and a video of Sarwar circulated on social media following the incident, which showed the journalist repeatedly saying “Please don’t beat me” and “I will not make any news again” after he regained consciousness.
On November 15, Sarwar filed an abduction report at the Kotwali police station in Chittagong against six unidentified individuals, according to The Daily Star and Sarwar. The next day, around six officers with the Kotwali police station questioned Sarwar about the incident for approximately four and a half hours and discouraged him from pursuing the abduction case, reportedly asking “Why are you getting yourself in trouble by fighting this case?” according to The Daily Star and Sarwar.
In May 2021, a sub-inspector of the Kotwali police station filed a report to a Chittagong court that denied finding any evidence of an abduction, according to The Daily Star. The court rejected the report and ordered the Chittagong Police Bureau of Investigation to re-investigate the case, according to that report.
Sarwar told CPJ that he believes he was targeted for his journalistic work but did not know which report led to his abduction; he shut down ctnewsbd.com following the incident.
On December 10, 2020, two suspects were arrested in the abduction case, but were granted bail six days later, according to The Daily Star and Sarwar, who said authorities did not inform him of the suspects’ arrest or release on bail, adding that the four other suspects remain at large.
The investigating officer in the abduction case did not apply for the two suspects to be detained for questioning until seven days after they’d been released, on December 22, 2020, according toSarwar, who said there are no updates in the case as of December 2021.
In the days before his abduction Sarwar had covered alleged illegal casinos in Chittagong as well as allegations that Anisuzzaman Chowdhury, an industrialist and brother of Saifuzzaman Chowdhury, a member of parliament with the ruling Awami League and the minister of land, was involved in land grabs in Chittagong.
Anisuzzaman Chowdhury filed two defamation complaints at separate Chittagong courts against Sarwar on December 9, 2020, according to The Daily Star, Sarwar, and copies of the complaints, which CPJ reviewed.
The first complaint demanded 1 million taka (US$11.6 million) in compensation for defamation, according to those sources. The second complaint accused Sarwar of violating sections of the Bangladesh penal code pertaining to defamation, printing matter known to be defamatory, or sale of defamatory matter, according to Sarwar and a copy of the complaint.
Each of those sections can carry a prison sentence of up to two years and an unspecified fine, according to the law.
Sarwar told CPJ that he was summoned to the Chittagong Metropolitan Police Bureau of Investigation in relation to the second complaint on December 22, 2020, at which time an investigating officer called the article “one-sided” and threatened to file a police report under the Digital Security Act against the journalist.
The Chittagong Metropolitan Police Bureau of Investigation investigated the second complaint for at least six months and submitted its report to a Chittagong court, according to Sarwar. The granted anticipatory bail to Sarwar on October 24, 2021, signifying that he could not be arrested for this case, according to the journalist.
On January 17, 2021, Anisuzzaman Chowdhury’s private secretary, Mohammad Borhan Uddin Chowdhury, and a deputy commissioner of the Chittagong metropolitan police jointly filed a complaint at a Chittagong court to revoke the government registration of ctnewsbd.com, specifically citing Sarwar’s article on land grabbing as an “inauthentic news release,” according to Sarwar and a copy of the complaint, which CPJ reviewed. As of December 9, 2021, there have been no updates to this complaint.
Since his abduction, Sarwar told CPJ that he has been repeatedly assaulted in seemingly targeted attacks.
On December 29, 2020, Sarwar was traveling home in a rickshaw when an unidentified driver rammed their car into the vehicle, causing it to flip over, injuring Sarwar’s left arm and left leg, in addition to the rickshaw driver, as the instigator fled the scene, he said.
In early January 2021, an unidentified motorcycle hit Sarwar from behind while he was walking in the Anderkilla area of Chittagong city, injuring Sarwar’s right hand, according to the journalist. In February, Sarwar was at a market in Chittagong city when an unidentified mini pickup truck attempted to hit him before fleeing the scene.
On March 18, 2021, an unidentified driver rammed their car into another rickshaw Sarwar was traveling in, injuring the journalist and the rickshaw driver as the attacker fled the scene, Sarwar said. Sarwar sustained an injury to his left foot, which took three months to recover, and received treatment at a local hospital after the incident, according to the journalist.
Sarwar told CPJ that he informed the Kotwali police station about the incidents on December 29, 2020, and March 18, 2021, but authorities did not take action to investigate them or hold the perpetrators accountable.
CPJ emailed the office of Saifuzzaman Chowdhury but did not receive any reply. Mohammad Borhan Uddin Chowdhury did not respond to CPJ’s text message requesting comment.
CPJ emailed Md. Anwar Hossain, deputy inspector general of the Chittagong range of the Bangladesh police, as well as the senior superintendent of the Chittagong Metropolitan Police Bureau of Investigation, and the Chittagong Metropolitan Police, which encompasses the Kotwali police station, but did not receive any replies.
On March 10, 2020, Bangladeshi journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol went missing for 53 days after a member of parliament with the ruling Awami League filed a defamation complaint against him, as CPJ documented.
[Editors’ note: In June 2022, Imrul Kayes Ahmed, managing director of the Bangladeshi marketing agency BrandMyth, emailed CPJ on behalf of Anisuzzaman and Saifuzzaman Chowdhury. Ahmed sent a May 2022 verdict from a local magistrate, which accepted a police report claiming there was no evidence to substantiate allegations of Sarwar’s abduction, and also said there was not enough evidence to substantiate allegations that the brothers were involved in land grabs. He added that the defamation case against Sarwar was still pending.]