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Journalist, out on bail, facing hardship due to legal persecution, still suffering from torture-induced injuries; CPJ concerned about trial process

(CPJ/IFEX) - The following is a CPJ letter to Bangladeshi President Iajuddin Ahmed:

December 19, 2007

President Iajuddin Ahmed
People's Republic of Bangladesh
Via Ambassador Shamseer M. Chowdhury
Bangladesh Embassy
Washington, D.C.
Via fax: (202) 244-5366

Dear Mr. President:

The Committee to Protect Journalists is greatly concerned about the upcoming trial of Jahangir Alam Akash, a reporter for the Bengali-language daily Dainik Sangbad, based in Rajshahi. He is charged with extortion, but we believe Akash has been unfairly targeted because of his investigative reporting, and we are greatly concerned about his health.

Akash was detained at 2 a.m. on October 23 and transferred a few days later to a prison hospital because of injuries he sustained from being beaten while in custody. He still requires medical treatment for those injuries. At the time of his release on bail in late November, his wife told CPJ that he could not stand due to leg injuries and was badly bruised and cut. Akash tells us he greatly fears being forced to return to prison to face similar treatment after his trial.

Authorities arrested Akash under the Emergency Power Rules of 2007. He asked CPJ to intervene after he was told his case will be transferred from the regular court system to the special courts operating under the emergency declaration for reasons that were not made clear to him or his lawyer. Because of the less rigorous legal guarantees accorded to defendants in the special courts, he worries he will not receive a fair trial and is concerned by the fact that the maximum sentence he would face under such a trial is 13 years, instead of the seven he would face in a regular court.

Akash was taken from his home in October by a unit of the Rapid Action Battalion, the anti-crime and anti-terrorism force under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Home Affairs. An influential local contractor, Mahfuzul Alam Loton, had accused him of extorting money from him. Akash had reported critically on Loton's family and his associates' business affairs on at least three occasions. Loton had been jailed earlier on an assault charge unrelated to this case after an investigation by the reporter. Neither Akash nor his lawyer has been given information about the current extortion charge so they can prepare for the case.

Much of Akash's professional career as an investigative reporter has been dedicated to rooting out corruption at the local level. This is not the first time he has faced harassment for his work, but he says this situation is the worst he has experienced. His colleagues at the Rajshahi Union of Journalists, where he is the general secretary, and press freedom groups say authorities have unfairly targeted him. More than 50 journalists signed a public statement of concern and support for him.

Right now, Akash is staying in Dhaka with his wife and 5-month-old son. They recently left their home in Rajshahi after they were evicted by their landlord, who told them he did not want to be involved with the family while they are involved in the legal dispute. With his family living in the capital with him, Akash is experiencing significant financial hardship.

We urge you to use all your influence to have the prosecution drop all charges against Akash, whom we believe has been unfairly targeted by a powerful and influential local figure's personal animosity rather than a legitimate legal concern.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director
The Committee to Protect Journalists

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President Iajuddin Ahmed
People's Republic of Bangladesh
via Ambassador Shamseer M. Chowdhury
Bangladesh Embassy
Washington, D.C.
Fax: +1 202 244 5366

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