The sister of a U.S.-based dissident Bangladeshi journalist has been granted bail by a Bangladesh court after 160 days in detention and, according to her lawyer, may be released sometime next week.
Nusrat Shahrin Raka, 38, the sister of journalist Kanak Sarwar, was detained Oct. 5 in Dhaka by Bangladesh’s special police force — the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). She was charged under the country’s controversial Digital Security Act for spreading anti-state propaganda and under the Narcotics Control Act for possessing crystal meth, which the police claimed to have found in her home.
Supporters have argued in a growing social media campaign that Raka is innocent and was arrested simply to apply pressure to her brother. Reporters Without Borders issued a statement in October accusing the Bangladesh government of targeting family members to stifle the voices of dissenting journalists living abroad.
Raka was denied bail multiple times in the last five months, both in lower and higher courts. But human rights bodies across the globe have increasingly been urging Bangladesh to drop what they see as politically motivated charges.
Sarwar, who now lives in New York, is a harsh critic of the Awami League government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed, which has remained in power since 2009 in spite of two controversial elections.
Sarwar was arrested in 2015, along with the owner of the TV station he worked for, after the station broadcast a speech delivered in London by the son of Khaleda Zia, Hasina’s archrival and the leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Sarwar was held for nine months before making bail. He then fled the country and has since then been living in the United States.
Calls for the release of Raka have been mounting on Facebook and Twitter under the hashtag #freeraka. Most argue the woman has been incarcerated only because her brother is a staunch regime critic.
Social media movement or international pressure?
Shyan S. Khan, a prominent Bangladeshi journalist, was among those who advocated for Raka’s release on his Facebook page.
“She is in jail for being a sister,” he wrote.
When asked whether #freeraka movement played a part in securing Raka’s bail, Khan said he believed that attention to the case from prominent international groups like Amnesty International, [the Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch was more of a factor.
“Gradually we were starting to see those same names that used to raise their voices against RAB/Police atrocities, eventually resulting in the sanctions imposed in December,” he told VOA via WhatsApp. “Those voices were starting to make themselves heard in the Raka’s case.”
Khan was referring to the December imposition of sanctions on RAB and seven current and former officials by Washington, which accused them of involvement in hundreds of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings since 2009.
“That, coupled with the fact that clearly the grounds were not there for a case against her … and Sarwar's refusal to bend to their demand; his pages and channels still remain published by YouTube,” said Khan.
“So, all in all, the government, being wary at the moment of more international condemnation of their rights record, most likely made the call that it was not worth it to keep Raka in jail anymore.”
Josef Benedict, Asia Pacific researcher for CIVICUS, an international alliance of civil society organizations and activists, attaches more importance to the social media campaign.
He wrote to VOA it is “impressive” that the #freeraka movement took off “despite ongoing attempts by the authorities to control or shutdown online spaces and to prosecute and harass individuals for online dissent.”
“Clearly this, as well as the growing international scrutiny on Bangladesh has helped to secure the release of Raka on bail after 160 days in jail,” he said.
“However, CIVICUS believes she should not have been detained in the first place and is a target of reprisal for the activism of her brother. We urge the government to immediately and unconditionally drop the trumped-up charges against her and end its harassment of activists or their families,” Benedict said.
Pressuring dissenting journalists abroad
Sarwar expressed his relief at the news that his sister has been granted bail.
“Clearly, she was arrested and was slapped with false charges as the Bangladesh government want me to stop my journalism,” he told VOA by telephone.
Sarwar started a YouTube channel in 2018 where he posted videos of his interviews with opposition politicians and others critical of the Hasina administration. His channel quickly gained popularity among Bangladeshis.
“People were drawn to my talk shows as, instead of succumbing to sycophancy, my program actually tried to adhere to journalistic norms,” Sarwar said.
“That created the problem, as this Awami regime couldn’t tolerate criticism and dubbed anything that went against their interest as anti-state propaganda,” he said, adding that the Bangladeshi government has tried to stop him multiple times from broadcasting critical news and hosting talk shows.
In its October statement, Reporters Without Borders said, “Pressure on family members, judicial harassment and even physical violence have been used by Awami League supporters since the start of September, with the backing of the authorities, to persecute Bangladeshi journalists covering Bangladesh from abroad.”
The statement mentioned harassment faced by the family members of Tasneem Khalil, a Swedish-based exiled Bangladeshi journalist. Khalil, the statement said, “fled to Sweden after being tortured by the security forces in 2007.” He now runs an investigative news portal called Netra News, which regularly publishes reports on corruption in Bangladesh.
Khalil told VOA that intelligence agencies visit his mother’s home in Bangladesh frequently and harass her with questions.
“She is an elderly person and lives alone. Yet the police visited her home late at night and asked her questions about me.”
Terming the judicial harassment of Raka “a textbook case of hostage-taking,” Khalil said, “This case is nothing but a ploy to blackmail and silence a dissident journalist Kanak Sarwar.”
Bangladesh’s Law Minister Anisul Haq told VOA that his government does not misuse any law to take anyone hostage. “I am aware of Kanak Sarwar’s sister case. Why do you think this is different from any other case?” he asked.
Haq said journalists in Bangladesh enjoy complete freedom.
“Even those who stay abroad and run news channel from there can broadcast or publish whatever they want,” he said.
Regarding the Digital Security Act, under which Raka was arrested, he said, “You have to understand, this act has not been enacted to curb freedom of speech and press freedom.”
Bangladeshi photojournalist and human rights activist Shahidul Alam disagreed, saying the law provides the Bangladesh government a perfect weapon to stifle dissenting voices.
The 2018 law criminalizes many forms of expression and imposes heavy fines and prison sentences for legitimate forms of dissent. The act gives the police absolute power to arrest anyone, without a warrant, simply on suspicion that a crime may be committed using digital media.