RSF calls for the release of Bangladeshi journalist Rozina Islam, unfairly accused of espionage

Investigative journalist Rozina Islam was detained earlier this week during a visit to the Bangladeshi health ministry, after publishing a series of reports on corruption in the ministry. She was subsequently charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urges the Bangladeshi government to restore its credibility by ordering her immediate release.

Islam, a reporter for the newspaper Prothom Alo, the country’s main Bengali-language daily, was arrested on Monday this week and later transferred to Shahbagh police station in Dhaka. According to the charges, of which RSF has seen a copy, she was accused of stealing “important official documents” from a government office and photographing confidential data. She could face the death penalty.

The journalist is alleged to have violated articles 3 and 5 of the Official Secrets Act, legislation dating from the era of British rule that calls for capital punishment in cases of espionage. She is also accused under articles 379 and 411 of the penal code of “putting a person in fear of injury in order to commit extortion” and concealing stolen documents, which could incur up to 14 years’ imprisonment.

Her husband, Monirul Islam Mithu, told RSF that she had gone to the health ministry to interview an employee. She was immediately locked in a room by a police officer and ministry staff who seized her bag and cell phone, giving them ample opportunity to plant false evidence.

Torture and illegal detention

She was illegally held for five hours in the office of Saiful Islam Bhuiyan, an official on the staff of Health Services Secretary Lokman Hossain Miah for five hours.

“They have harassed her physically,” Mithu said. “They pushed her down and tried to strangle her. While snatching her bag, they literally twisted her arm. Her skin got scarred and she also suffered bruises".

She was transferred to the police station about 8 p.m. and charged at 11:45 p.m. She is due to attend a bail hearing tomorrow.

“The arrest of Rozina Islam and the allegations against her are particularly shocking since they are clearly based on a crude frame-up,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.

“Illegal detention, torture, intimidation, fabrication of evidence … the way the police and judicial authorities have handled this case brings shame on the rule of law in Bangladesh. We call on Interior Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal to order her immediate and unconditional release and for the absurd charges against her to be dropped. His government’s credibility is at stake.”

The managing editor of Prothom Alo, Sajjad Sharif, is in no doubt that Islam was harassed by health ministry staff and handed over to the police in retaliation for the stories she published in the newspaper on serious corruption and mismanagement in the health sector linked to the coronavirus crisis.

Bangladesh is ranked 152nd out of 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index compiled by RSF.