The Bangladeshi authorities’ treatment of a prominent 81-year-old journalist, who has been held in solitary confinement for several weeks and denied medical care for chronic and life threatening health conditions, is an act of cruelty, Amnesty International said today.
Shafik Rehman, editor of the monthly Mouchake Dhil magazine, was arrested on 16 April suspected of being involved in a plot to assassinate Sajib Wazed Joy, the son of Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
“The Bangladeshi authorities must end the prolonged solitary confinement of Shafik Rahman and ensure his well-being. It is absolutely shocking that an 82-year-old diabetic man with a history of heart problems is being denied the medical care he needs,” said Champa Patel, Director of Amnesty International’s South Asia Regional Office.
According to Shafik Rehman’s lawyer and family members, he has been kept in isolation since 27 April in Kashimpur Central Jail, a maximum security prison, where he is not allowed to interact with other prisoners. He has had minimal access to both his legal team and family members since he was first arrested.
Shafik Rehman suffers from several long-standing health issues, including diabetes and heart problems. Without medical care, his health is endangered. According to family members, his health has deteriorated sharply and he has visibly lost weight since being taken into solitary confinement. The family are seriously concerned about his long-term well-being while he is kept imprisoned.
On 19 May, Shafik Rehman was rushed to a hospital in Dhaka following a health scare related to his diabetes. After a first checkup he was sent back to Kashimpur, where he is currently being treated in the jail hospital.
Amnesty International also has very serious concerns about the impact of prolonged periods of solitary confinement on his mental health. The prison authorities have even denied Shafik Rehman’s request for a pen and paper, so that he would be able to write while in his cell.
Pattern of media repression
Shafik Rehman is a known supporter of the Bangladesh National Party, the main opposition party, and has been targeted by authorities for his journalistic work several times in the past.
There have been a string of arrests and unlawful detentions of editors and journalists in Bangladesh this year as the authorities are growing increasingly intolerant of independent media and critical voices.
On 25 April, Mahmudur Rahman, another editor of the opposition-linked Amar Desh was arrested on charges of being involved in the plot to kill Sajib Wazed Joy. This comes after Rahman’s arrest in 2013 on charges of sedition and his subsequent unlawful detention for over two years.
In February this year, Mahfuz Ahnam, the editor of the Daily Star, was charged with a total of 83 cases under the Sedition Law and the Defamation Law. In, what is clearly an impossible situation, he was – in one instance – expected to appear in different courts across multiple districts all on the same day.
Separately, the editor of The Daily Star’s Bengali sister publication Prothom Alo, Matiur Rahman, was also handed charges of defamation and “hurting religious sentiments” in February 2016.
“Freedom of expression is under threat in Bangladesh,” said Champa Patel. “On the one hand, the government is devoting all of its energies to targeting journalists for simply exercising their rights and doing their jobs. On the other, it has failed to prosecute those responsible for the horrific killings of bloggers, university professors, religious minorities and LGBTI activists.”
Police said Shafik Rehman was first arrested in relation to a pending criminal case registered in August 2015 for “conspiring to abduct and assassinate” Sajib Wazed Joy, who is living in the United States and is also an Information and Technology Adviser to the Prime Minister.
Credible media reports have since, however, raised serious questions about the Bangladeshi authorities’ claims that US court documents implicate Shafik Rehman in this plot.
After his arrest on 16 April, Shafik Rehman was initially remanded, but on 28 April was taken to Kashimpur High Security Jail awaiting trial, for which a date has not been set. Requests for him to be released on bail have been denied twice by separate courts in Dhaka without explanation, according to his legal team.
The conditions facing Shafik Rehman in jail contravenes Bangladesh’s obligation under international law to ensure that all people deprived of their liberty are treated with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and are not subjected cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Law enforcement officials and prison authorities are responsible for protecting the health of people in their custody, and provide health care free of charge that matches what is available to the outside community.
Furthermore, solitary confinement should only be used only in exceptional circumstances and for as short a time as possible. When prisoners are placed in solitary confinement, the state has an obligation to take steps to minimize its harmful effects on the individual by ensuring they have access to adequate exercise, social and mental stimulation, and that their health is regularly monitored.