‘Justice’ for Khadijatul Kubra and the country’s image

Jagannath University student Khadijatul KubraFile photo

Jagannath University student Khadijatul Kubra has finally been acquitted of all charges in the cases filed against her under the Digital Security Act. Two cases were lodged against her on October 2020 on charges of anti-government propaganda and tarnishing the country’s image. She was arrested on 27 August 2022. At the directives of the Appellate Division, she was released on bail on 20 November 2023. She was then granted bail in the second case and also completely acquitted of all charges on 29 February.

In his column on 4 March in Prothom Alo, Sohrab Hassan raised the question, ‘Who will give Khadija back 15 months of her life?’ This is an extremely significant question. But other than this, Khadija’s arrest and trial bring forward many more questions.

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1. Khadija had been charged of propagating propaganda against the government and tarnishing the image of the country. Can anti-government narratives be an offence? Our constitution still upholds multiparty democracy and freedom of expression. The government does good work too and certainly can be lauded for that. But there is no country in the world that is totally faultless, that takes no incorrect or bad decision.

Surely the government in our country is also not faultless. Opposing such faults is part and parcel of democracy and freedom of speech. How can that be an offence?

2. Then comes the question of the intangible matter of ‘image’. This entails the general view of people and institutions of other countries concerning our country, right? No matter what high opinions we may have of ourselves, we must look at the various international indicators to understand the prevailing opinion of the outside world concerning Bangladesh’s image.

The image of the country is brightened when the country sees high economic growth over the past 30 years, when gender equality is reached in primary school, when poverty decreases, when a Bengali taxi driver in New York takes pains to locate a passenger to return his wallet left in the vehicle, when someone of the country wins the Nobel Peace Prize.

Khadijatul Kubra was innocent. Will those who spent so much time, effort and government money in subjecting her to such harassment, be held accountable?

The image is tarnished when the country ranks low on the corruption index, on the index for the rule of law, when the country does not even upgrade to flawed democracy from a hybrid regime, when the election process is questioned, when the government agencies are accused of enforced disappearances or extrajudicial killing, when the head of the United Nations human rights organisation expresses concern at the burgeoning number of opposition leaders and activists behind bars, when a significant number of those drowning in the Mediterranean, illegally en route to Europe, are Bangladeshi youth.

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The image of the country is not sullied by what Khadijatul Kubra had to say, it is sullied when she is incarcerated for the ‘offence’ of speaking out. The honorable judge, who revoked the two cases against Khadija, not only carried out justice, but also heightened the image of the court and, to an extent, of the country.

3. Who decides whether anyone’s speech diminishes the image of the country or not? The police of the Kalabagan and New Market police stations had filed the case against Khadija. Is the officer-in-charge of a police station or a sub-inspector qualified to take such a decision regarding what adverse opinion may have been provoked on the other side of the world by Khadija’s words? Or has the police been given absolute power to take any sort of decision?

4. I feel psychiatrists may look into another aspect of the matter. Why were the police and the government’s law officials so inflexible and determined to place this young girl, below 18 at the time of her arrest, in jail?

Even if she was arrested, it would be very natural for a degree of empathy to be felt towards a girl of such a young age. But instead of that, it was ensured that she was not granted bail in the judicial court. On 16 February 2022 the High Court granted Khadija bail. That could have been the end of the matter, but why did they then appeal to the chamber court to suspend Khadija’s bail order?

Murderers, rapists, terrorists come out of jail and roam freely on bail, then put pressure on the victims to withdraw the cases. This girl had no such opportunity. When a hardcore criminal leaves the country by air, orders to detain him reach the airport two hours after his departure. This girl was hardly capable of such action. So why was there such desperation to hold back her bail?

5. The court is the last resort for persons who have been wronged. The honorable judges often take it upon themselves to issue rulings against injustice and unfairness. It was at the behest of the court that Khadijatul Kubra was acquitted of charges. With full respect towards the court, I want humbly ask whether it was not a contradiction of justice for this innocent girl to remain 15 months in prison for no offence at all, and for such a long time spent just to be granted bail?

6. Khadijatul Kubra was innocent. Will those who spent so much time, effort and government money in subjecting her to such harassment, be held accountable?

Perhaps it would be prudent not to have such high hopes.

* Md Touhid Hossain is a former foreign secretary

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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