The arrest of a pro-opposition newspaper editor has stoked new tension in Bangladesh. The opposition party and Islamists claim his arrest is the result of a political vendetta.
Bangladesh police arrested Mahmudur Rahman, editor of Bengali daily Amar Desh from his office in Dhaka on Thursday for leaking of a sensitive Skype conversation that led to the resignation of the chief judge of the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) dealing with war crimes during the country’s 1971 war of independence, among other charges.
As the 59-year-old editor, who, fearing a possible arrest, had been staying at his office for months, was remanded to 13-day police custody by a Dhaka court for further interrogation, police forced all employees out of Amar Desh editorial office and press and took control of the premises.
“We have arrested him in a Skype conversation-related case filed against him in December,” Masudur Rehman, a senior Dhaka Police spokesperson said to local media on Thursday after arresting the editor.
“He has also been charged with sedition and incitement to religious tension and violence through false and derogatory information in his newspaper. We are going to file more charges against him.”
Accused of triggering unrest
Rahman who was the deputy minister of energy in the cabinet of Khaleda Zia between 2001 and 2006, when her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was in power, bought Amar Desh in 2008 and became its editor. Since he took charge, the newspaper became known for its series of critiques of Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League (AL)-led government. In the politically polarised country, Amar Desh also became known as a pro-BNP newspaper.
Since the Hasina-led government set up the ICT in 2009 to investigate and prosecute people suspected in participating in the genocide committed during the 1971 war, the BNP, which is supported by the country’s largest Islamic party Jamaat-e-Islami, began voicing opposition to the court and Amar Desh took a leading role in campaign against the tribunal.
After Jamaat leader Abdul Kader Mollah was sentenced to life in prison and Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, another Jamaat leader, was sentenced to death by the ICT in February, as Islamists began a country-wide campaign against both sentences, online activists and bloggers began a peaceful protest at Dhaka’s Shahbag Square, seeking death penalty for Mollah.
The government and anti-Islamist liberals allege that Amar Desh played a key role by inciting the Islamists against the government and the peaceful demonstrators of the Gonojagoron Moncho, or Shahbag protest, movement.
Home Minister M. K. Alamgir said the arrest of Rahman was justified.
“He exaggerated police action against the violent Jamaat supporters. He incited them to take on the government,” the minister said to local media.
“His newspaper made it a routine to engage in all sorts of disinformation campaigns against bloggers and online activists which was leading to serious law and order problems in the country.”
Gonojagoron Moncho activists have welcomed the arrest of Rahman.
Moncho’s spokesperson Imran Sarkar said Rahman should have been arrested long ago.
“He published fabricated comments on Islam and the Prophet Mohammad and attributed them to our bloggers to portray us as anti-Islamic and trigger hatred among the general mass,” Sarkar told DW.
“In fact his newspaper has been involved in an anti-Islam campaign that has hurt the sentiments of religious Muslims. Had he been arrested before the violence broke out, many lives would have been saved.”
However editors with Amar Desh say the government and the Moncho activists are not speaking the truth.
An online editor with Amar Desh said that whatever the newspaper reported about the “anti-Islam” bloggers was true.
“We published exactly what those bloggers wrote in their vilification campaign against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran. Many of our readers noticed those blogs only after they were alerted by our reports. We got thousands of angry letters from our readers after they read the anti-Islam blogs with their own eyes,” the editor, who wished not to be named, told DW.
“If we did not speak the truth about the bloggers, why has the government shut down so many blogs and arrested the bloggers after we alerted the country?”
Alamgir Mohiuddin, editor of Bangla daily Naya Diganta said most charges against Rahman were “baseless.”
“The main charge against him is that he published hacked Skype conversation. But what Amar Desh published was nothing but the translated version of what (British international weekly) the Economist had already printed – it had already been in the public domain,” Mr. Mohiuddin told DW.
“Several newspapers in Bangladesh regularly republish material from the Economist and other international publications. By publishing that Skype conversation, Amar Desh did not do anything unethical from a journalistic point of view.”
However, the report has gone against the interest of the government and angered it, Mohiuddin added.
The arrest of Rahman is a glaring example of how an autocratic government pulls out all the stops to stifle the voices of its critics, said political analyst Asif Nazrul.
“This government does not bother to act against an MP after his gun is found to have killed a person or, its party leaders found openly involved in massive corruption scandals,” Professor Nazrul of Dhaka University told DW.
“But it is very keen to arrest a fearless editor just because he dared expose many of its misdeeds. It’s ridiculous.”