Bangladesh Arrested a Photographer For Documenting Transfer of Refugees to an Island Settlement

Abul Kalam has been chronicling refugee life in Bangladesh for over a decade.
Pallavi Pundir
Delhi, IN
January 5, 2021, 2:21pm
bangladesh arrest photographer censorship rohingya bhasan char controversy
Activists and journalists in Bangladesh allege that Abul Kalam was arrested while he was taking photographs of the transfer of refugees to Bhasan Char. Photo by Abolfazl Talooni

A photographer is in jail in Bangladesh for the last seven days for allegedly documenting the controversial transfer of Rohingya refugees to the Bhasan Char island settlement. Abul Kalam—who is a Rohingya himself and has been living in Bangladesh for 28 years—has been documenting the shifting of the refugees since Dec.3, 2020. 

Last week, the 35-year-old was charged for obstructing government work and assaulting officials on duty. Bangladeshi authorities denied any links of the arrest to his documentation of the refugee relocation, which has triggered outrage across the world. 

VICE World News has previously reported on this move by the Bangladeshi government, which aims to relocate 100,000 members of the persecuted minority. Several Rohingya refugees had spoken up about not volunteering to be moved to the island, which is prone to natural disasters. 

The police told the media that the arrest is for a case that took place earlier last year. “[He] was handed over to Ukhia sub-district police station on Wednesday [last week] in connection with a case filed in June 2020,” Cox’s Bazar Additional Superintendent of Police Rafikul Islam told Arab News.

Advertisement

Kalam was handed a bail order on Monday, Jan. 4. However, his release is still awaited. 

rohingya refugee abul kalam

A photo from the Rohingya camp in Bangladesh. Photo: Abul Kalam

rohingya refugee abul kalam

Kalam has been documenting everyday lives of the Rohingya settled in Bangladesh's refugee camps. Photo: Abul Kalam

Shafiur Rahman, a documentary filmmaker in the country who is also a friend of Kalam’s, told VICE World News that the police produced Kalam as an “unnamed fugitive” in connection with violence that broke out in Rohingya camps in May 2020. 

Rahman said that the arrest was based on the testimony of a Rohingya refugee camp in-charge, who alleged that Kalam was a part of a violent attack that involved knives, bricks and sticks. 

“This is a complete invention,” said Rahman. “He was not involved in any such thing. There will be no circumstantial evidence against him as he was not involved in any such fracas.”

In the meantime, several prominent journalists and activists rallied in support of Kalam. A petition signed by over 30 activists stated that Kalam was apprehended while he was taking photographs of buses departing for Bhasan Char. The petition also stated that Kalam was beaten up when he was apprehended. 

rohingya refugee camp

A portrait taken at a Rohingya refugee camp. Photo: Abul Kalam

Kalam, who has never been under police radar for his work, has been chronicling refugee life in Bangladesh for over a decade. While documenting the Rohingya refugee crisis in the country is not dangerous, the international response to the Bhasan Char resettlement has visibly upset the government. 

refugee rohingya bangladesh

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Photo: Abul Kalam

Last month, the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to multiple reports of use of force, intimidation or use of money to influence Rohingya refugees to relocate to Bhasan Char. “It is disheartening that instead of appreciating the good intention of Bangladesh, some quarters have resorted to orchestrating misinformation to create confusion among the international community,” read the MFA statement. The authorities have also reiterated that the island would, in fact, “save” the refugees from problems such as drug trafficking or prostitution. 

“The Bangladesh government is exceptionally sensitive about Bhasan Char,” said Rahman. “In the last relocation, video emerged of crying and distraught people as they waved farewell to their relatives. This does not play well for the official narrative of refugees eager and willing to go to Bhasan Char.” 

At the moment, lawyers from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are engaged with completing the process of Kalam’s release. “UNHCR has been engaged with the authorities since the arrest of Abul Kalam on 28 December and is following the situation closely to ensure he receives a fair hearing of any charge against him,” a spokesperson told The Guardian

Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.