Uphold the rights of the incarcerated in South Asia, say human-rights advocates

Meant to share this earlier – great discussion last weekend on the rights of the incarcerated in South Asia, organised by Sapan, the South Asia Peace Action Network. Besides human rights advocates and experts, there were testimonies from those who have suffered incarceration, and presentations from Sapan volunteers about prison conditions and best practices in the region. The issues raised are relevant beyond the region. Hope we can keep the momentum going – and we need help to do that. Please like, comment, share and post about this issue that affects all of society. Thank you.

Participants turned on cameras at the end for a group photo. Collage by Aekta Kapoor, eShe magazine.

29 August 2021: “If the government becomes the monster that it can be, then the belly of the beast contains the people in jail”, said Nepali journalist Kanak Mani Dixit, speaking at a regional session on the rights of the incarcerated in South Asia, particularly in light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

He was among the prominent activists, legal experts, concerned citizens, and formerly incarcerated persons across the region who came together online to discuss the issue on Sunday, 29 August 2021, under the umbrella of Sapan, the South Asia Peace Action Network, of which he is a founding member. 

Held a day before the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, 30 August, the meeting underlined the need to recognise enforced disappearance as a distinct crime. The recent commemoration of World Humanitarian Day on 19 August also pegged the need for compassion and empathy for vulnerable communities. The tragic situation in Afghanistan further highlights the need for solidarity in the region and to insist on upholding human rights principles.

The event featured gut-wrenching testimonies in various languages from those who have experienced incarceration in the region, including those who were picked up but not produced before the courts for months or years. Those who fill the prisons tend to be the poorest of the poor as many pointed out.

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Good news: Shahidul Alam walks free after over 100 days in Dhaka prison

Shahidul free

“Shahidul is free !! ধন্যবাদ !!! Thank you for your support!!” – message from Dhaka. Best news of the day 🙂

 Press statement from the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and
South Asia Media Defenders Network

Dhaka, November 20– After day-long wrangles today between his lawyers and jail authorities in Dhaka over purported “discrepancy” in the prison’s address, internationally acclaimed Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam was set free on bail to joyous scenes this evening. Continue reading

Arundhati Roy’s letter to her jailed comrade Shahidul Alam, who has now been granted bail

Arundhati-By Shahidul

Arundhati Roy with a furry friend. Photo by Shahidul Alam.

Read Arundhati Roy’s letter to Shahidul Alam as part of PEN International’s Day of the Imprisoned Writer, 15 November. Today the Dhaka High Court also finally granted bail to Shahidul Alam, been incarcerated for over 100 days. He has yet to be actually released — the government is appealing the court’s decision.

Every November 15 PEN highlights the cases of five persecuted writers and activists imprisoned, killed, persecuted or otherwise at risk for their work. This year’s campaign focuses on Dawit Isaak imprisoned in Eritrea, Miroslava Breach Velducea killed in Mexico, Oleg Sentsov imprisoned in Russia, Shahidul Alam detained in Bangladesh and Wael Abbas imprisoned in Egypt. Writers David Lagercrantz, Jennifer Clement, Tom Stoppard, Salil Tripathi and Khaled Hosseini are also participating in this year’s campaign. Continue reading

Solidarity with pro-democracy activists #India #Bangladesh #SouthAsia #FreeShahidul

“…In a coordinated operation… several well known academics, lawyers, writers, poets, priests and journalists have been arrested and their homes raided by the police”… 
(Note, 31 August 2018: added video below)
India arrests-threat

This extract from a statement titled ‘Fascism at our doorstep‘ by Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS) against the ongoing raids in India against democracy and rights activists applies elsewhere too. So do the words of Prof. Badri Raina in Delhi who writes in The Wire, “the grave fault of the human rights activists who have just been arrested is that they share knowledge of the provisions of the constitution of India with Indian citizens who, despite seven decades of practicing democracy, have remained disenfranchised from the promises of constitutional democracy”.

Below, an update from friends of Shahidul Alam, the detained photojournalist languishing in prison in Dhaka about whom I’ve written before. He is still denied the legal procedures and rights that he has fought for all his life. This is not a time to be silent.

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Bangladesh #FreeShahidul – my opinion piece in Washington Post yesterday

Shahidul Alam in Central Park, New York, 2012. Photo: Beena Sarwar

The Washington Post published my opinion piece about Shahidul yesterday. Below, a slightly earlier version of the final edited piece for those unable to access WP.

Here’s why Bangladesh made a huge mistake by jailing Shahidul Alam

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Bengali “Crossfire” reaches U.S.

This is a slightly longer version of my interview of Bangladeshi photographer-activist Shahidul Alam published in Latitude News, May 4, 2012, with reference to his exhibition at Queen’s Museum in New York. The exhibition is an attempt to internationalise the issue of extra-judicial killings. Thousands have been killed in such ‘crossfire’, allegedly at the hands of Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) that the U.S. and UK governments have been training and providing arms to.

Crossfire @ Queens

Crossfire launch at Queens Museum. Photo: Beena Sarwar

In “Crossfire,” an exhibition of photographs at the Queens Museum of Art in New York that closes on Sunday the 6th, acclaimed Bangladeshi photographer and activist Shahidul Alam chronicles the extra-judicial killings allegedly committed by Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion, or RAB.Over a thousand victims have been ‘cross-fired,’ or executed by police without trial, in the last four years in the South Asian country, human rights activists claim. Many more people, perhaps thousands in total, have suffered similar fates, they say. Continue reading

Chicago, Shahidul and ‘Three Cups of Tea’

Three Cups of Tea_Mech.indd

Published in Hardnews, New Delhi,April 2, 2009


Beena Sarwar

I love how connections sometimes just ‘happen’, criss-crossing the world, spanning generations, borders and continents. This particular stream traverses Pakistan’s early progressive struggle to Chicago, an inspiring book by an American who recently received Pakistan’s highest civilian honour, and a Bangladeshi photographer who came to Pakistan to document that moment.

In Chicago for a seminar in May 2007, I stayed with Danial Noorani. He is active with Apna Ghar, a domestic violence shelter for immigrant, primarily South Asian women. His late parents Malik and Mumtaz Noorani were close friends of my parents, active in the Communist Party and city goings-on. Tall jovial Malik Uncle ran a publishing house. ‘Jan-e-Man Phuphi’ (as we called the bright-eyed Mumtaz Noorani because of the endearment she used for us children) was active with Anjuman Jamhooriat Pasand Khawateen (Democratic Women’s Association, headed by Tahira Mazhar Ali, still going strong in Lahore).

There is some symbolism about meeting their son in Chicago. I remembered hearing of Dr Eqbal Ahmad’s disappointment when he found a monument to a policeman rather than the Chicago workers demonstrating for the eight hour day were killed by police fire in 1886. Ironically, the US does not observe May 1 as Labour Day.

Before I left, Danial gave me a paperback titled ‘Three Cups of Tea’ by someone I had vaguely heard of, Greg Mortenson. I couldn’t put it down. It is mandatory reading for anyone interested in education, Pakistan and the ‘war on terror’.

Mortenson builds schools in Pakistan’s remotest areas. The book, co-authored by David Oliver Relin, is sub-titled One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time’– a mission as endangered by the ‘taliban’ as by the militaristic policies of the US and Pakistani governments operating without a political roadmap.

It started in 1993, when Mortenson was recuperating in atiny, unmapped village, Korphe, after being injured while climbing the world’s second highest mountain K2 in the Karakorams. Shocked that the village ‘school’ was a patch of land where children sat in the open scratching their lessons with sticks on the ground, he vowed to build them a school.

Back in the US, he saved rent by sleeping in his car and not taking his girlfriend out to dinner. Not surprisingly, they broke up. Mortenson kept trying to raise funds, manually typing letters to seek help. Two years later he was back at Korphe with a truck-load of building materials.

But he was in for a shock. The villagers told him that they first needed a bridge across the ravine that isolated them. Mortenson nearly went off in a huff. Then he thought about it and realised they were right. An important lesson for aid organizations: ask people what they want and need instead of giving them what you think they should have.

Besides making Korphe more accessible to the world, the bridge enabled the village women to make short trips to visit family on the other side rather than investing days as they used to. And yes, the school was also built. Mortenson has since helped to build some 78 schools in Pakistan (and Afghanistan), providing education to over 28,000 children, including 18,000 girls.

The second part of the book tells a grimmer story: the impact of the mushrooming Wahabi madrassahs and the ‘war on terror’ following ‘9-11’. Mortenson recalls an invitation to the Pentagon to talk about his work, only to realise that they’re not really interested. If they listened to him, perhaps the world would be in less of a mess.

Last August, the Pakistan government announced that Pakistan’s highest civil award, Sitara-e-Pakistan (“Star of Pakistan”) would go to Mortenson for his courage and humanitarian effort to promote education, and literacy in rural areas. The Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam mentioned it when we met last month in Kathmandu. He flew in from Bangladesh especially to record the moment. On March 23rd, 2009, he was in Islamabad with friends of Mortenson watching the awards ceremony live on television.

These are, as Salma Hasan Ali wrote on Shahidul’s blog, “kernels of hope that remind us that all will not be lost to violence and a distorted mindset.”


Three cups of tea and hope in Pakistan

Three Cups of Tea_Mech.inddToday, March 23, Greg Mortenson will receive Pakistan’s highest civilian award, the Sitara-e-Pakistan (Star of Pakistan) for his work on education, especially for girls, in Pakistan’s northern areas.
His book, Three Cups of Tea, is a must read for anyone interested in the area.
Here’s a note I found on Shahidul Alam’s blog:
Pakistan: Hope amidst the chaos
Salma Hasan Ali

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