NEW YORK/DHAKANEW YORK/DHAKA (Reuters) - Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina says she is convinced that jailed photographer Shahidul Alam instigated trouble by spreading what she describes as "false news" about protests against her rule in August.
In an exclusive interview with Reuters, Hasina described Alam, who is known as one of South Asia's preeminent photographers, as "mentally sick" and blamed his behavior on his family background – Alam's great uncle was on the opposing side to Hasina's father in Bangladesh's war of independence from Pakistan.
She offered no evidence for her accusations, which Alam's family and lawyer reject.
Alam was arrested in August, hours after criticizing the government's response to widespread student protests.
His detention has been widely seen as a test for freedom of speech in the country and has sparked worldwide demands for his release.
Hasina, who was returned unopposed in 2014 after the opposition boycotted the poll, is seeking a third term in an election at the end of December against a backdrop of growing dissent at what critics believe is her increasingly authoritarian government.
"You are now guilty until proven innocent - we have a reverse system," said Ataur Rahman, a professor of political science at Dhaka University. "People don't want to be engaged in debates in case they end up like Shahidul."
Told of Hasina's comments, Alam's family said the government had already decided on his guilt before a trial can be held. "It shows they have already made their judgment," said Alam's niece, Dilruba Karim. She added that Hasina's comments "are hugely cruel and don't befit the leader of a so-called democracy".
Anisul Huq, a cabinet minister who handles legal affairs in Hasina's government, said the country's judicial system has "full independence and freedom".
Alam, a long-term critic of Hasina's Awami League, is being investigated under a controversial section of the Information and Communication Technology Act, which Human Rights Watch says has been used by Hasina's government in a number of arbitrary detentions of government critics and is one of several laws that have been used to stifle free speech.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has called the case "rife with due process violations", an accusation that Huq denied.
Alam's lawyer, Shahdeen Malik, said his comments during the protests did not constitute a criminal offence, and that Hasina's remarks regarding Alam's uncle suggested a "feudal" justice system.
Hasina's government has also introduced laws that prescribe jail time for those spreading "propaganda" against the country, while her main political rival, Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader Khaleda Zia, is in jail on corruption charges she claims were part of a plot to prevent her from challenging Hasina.
The government firmly denies it has interfered with freedom of speech. "No government has safeguarded and upheld principles of freedom of expression, freedom of speech and freedom of press as much as this government of Hasina has done," Huq said.
"GOONS" WIELDING RODS
Alam was detained for what the government says was misleading reporting on the demonstrations, that began because of the deaths of two school students in a traffic accident before escalating into the widest anti-government protests in years. Alam says he was covering the demonstrations as a photojournalist.
In one of a dozen Facebook videos he posted from the protest site, Alam said he had been attacked and had his camera smashed by "goons" wielding metal rods and sticks from the Chhatra League, a student movement affiliated with the ruling Awami League. He later posted a photograph he said showed men from the movement wearing masks and being allowed to disrupt the protests in full view of police officers.
Biplob Barua, a senior leader in the Awami League, said the allegations made by Alam in the Facebook videos about attacks on students and the failure of the police to act were "totally false" and had provoked additional violence.
Photographs of protesters being attacked by young men are widely available online but Reuters could not verify what group the assailants belonged to.
Alam was picked up hours after giving an interview to Al Jazeera in which he accused the government of involvement in extrajudicial killings in the past.
The government has denied allegations of sanctioning extrajudicial killings in its controversial anti-drugs campaign.
"SAVE THE CHILDREN"
Hasina said in the interview with Reuters in New York late last month that Alam had spread false news as authorities were trying to calm the students.
"He tried to use this situation, to instigate it," she said. "We tried to save the children but he tried to use these children. All the false news he started... how can you accept it?"
In the interview, she also sharply criticized Alam's deceased great uncle, Abdus Sabur Khan, a former government minister who opposed Bangladesh's independence and allied with Pakistan.
"He opposed our liberation war, he joined Pakistan, he didn't accept Bangladesh. In 1971 he was with the Pakistani occupation army," Hasina said. "Sometimes blood speaks, you understand that."
The war for independence is still a sensitive topic in the country.
A new law, called the Digital Security Act, signed into law by the nation's president on Monday despite protests from local journalists and the United States, stipulates a maximum jail sentence of 14 years for several offences, including secretly recording inside government buildings and spreading "propaganda" against Bangladesh's 1971 war for independence.
Hasina told Reuters that reporters had nothing to fear from the Digital Security Act.
"If they have confidence that they will not do anything wrong then why should they worry," she said.
(Reporting by Jonathan Spicer in NEW YORK and Serajul Quadir in DHAKA; Additional reporting by Saad Sayeed in ISLAMABAD and Rodrigo Campos in NEW YORK; Writing by Alasdair Pal in NEW DELHI; Editing by Martin Howell and Alex Richardson)