Bangladeshi students have been protesting against poor road safety – CREDIT: MOHAMMAD PONIR
Ahigh profile Bangladeshi activist has claimed he is in hiding and in fear for his life after being summoned by Bangladesh’s intelligence agency at the height of a violent stand-off between the government and students protesting poor road safety in the capital, Dhaka, last week.
Pinaki Bhattacharya, a prolific blogger and government critic, whose personal Facebook page had over 150,000 followers until it was closed down on Monday, told The Telegraph that he is afraid he may come to physical harm if he emerges from his hiding place.
“Am I being targeted to become another victim of enforced disappearance? I am very scared for my life,” he said in an interview.
Mr Bhattacharya has long used his Facebook and Twitter accounts to highlight alleged corruption, enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings. He has received many online death threats, including some in the past week.
In early August he backed students who were demonstrating en masse for the reform of Bangladesh’s unregulated and dangerous transport sector.
The protest became a catalyst for an outpouring of anger against the government and more than 100 people were injured after police fired tear gas and rubber bullets, according to witnesses and doctors. Alleged pro-government activists were also reported to have attacked the young demonstrators.
Blogger Pinaki Bhattacharya believes his life is at risk
The timing of the unrest was unwelcome for the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, which faces looming elections.
They came from a man who he claimed was called Major Farhan, from the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI). “He said he had some issues to discuss with me…And he asked me to go down to his office by that evening.”
Mr Bhattacharya refused. He felt uneasy, recalling recent shocking audio clips that recorded the death of Akramul Haque, 46, at the hands of Bangladesh’s elite Rapid Action Battalion.
The Battalion claimed he was an armed drug dealer who died in a gunfight. But in a reported recording made on his daughter’s phone, Mr Haque is heard saying “I am not involved” before two gunshots. According to the Guardian, other voices say: “Take out the bullets” and “Have his hands been untied?”
The alleged calls to Mr Bhattacharya also occurred around the same time that acclaimed photographer, Shahidul Alam, was arrested after criticising the government’s handling of the student protests. He remains in custody.
Students run as police fire tear gas during a protest in Dhaka CREDIT: MOHAMMAD PONIR HOSSAIN/REUTERS
“I became very concerned about my physical safety instantly and went underground soon after disconnecting the call,” said Mr Bhattacharya, 51, a trained doctor, who has a teenage son.
Men in plainclothes, claiming to be intelligence officers, reportedly arrived at his home and office over the next couple of days.
“Some of the men who came looking for my husband and said they were from DGFI are still secretly keeping a watch on our house. We are very anxious about his safety,” said his wife, Anjuman Ara Nimmi.
“Why are they hunting for me?” asked Mr Bhattacharya. “We all know what happens to most people in Bangladesh after security agents conduct quiet raids and vanish with them…I have long been campaigning against the high incidence of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings,” he claimed.
“I fight in support of the rights of the Bangladeshi people. They are trying to silence my voice. I hope the international community will act to save me from all threats and help me continue my activism.”
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch said that Mr Bhattacharya was understandably afraid.
The group has denounced regular enforced disappearances in Bangladesh. Local human rights activists allege hundreds have been illegally detained over the past decade.
“There’s no accountability among Bangladesh intelligence and security forces for either enforced disappearances, or extra-judicial killings,” claimed Mr Robertson.
A DGFI investigation into a social media commentator “demonstrates the extremes to which Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her government are prepared to go to shut down criticism of their record,” he added.
A DGFI spokesman dismissed Mr Battacharya’s claims as “propaganda.” He added: “Int [intelligence] organisation never abduct anyone, they only provide int to the concern [sic] authority.”
The Telegraph called the office number reportedly used by Major Farhan and was told that a message would be relayed to him.
However, Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury, the prime minister’s media adviser, denied the Major existed or that the DGFI had tried to find the blogger. He also denied that hundreds of activists had been disappeared.
Mr Bhattacharya was not wanted by the authorities, he added. “Whether he feels insecure is a personal matter,” he said, but declined to answer “hypothetical questions” about his safety or possible arrest in future.