Top Bangladesh editor gets bail in libel case

Mr Anam (in the centre of front row), editor of Bangladesh's biggest- circulation English newspaper The Daily Star, leaving courtyesterday. He faces 62 defamation suits.
Mr Anam (in the centre of front row), editor of Bangladesh's biggest- circulation English newspaper The Daily Star, leaving courtyesterday. He faces 62 defamation suits.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

DHAKA • A court granted one of Bangladesh's top newspaper editors bail yesterday following a spate of defamation suits from government supporters over reports alleging corruption against the current Prime Minister.

Daily Star editor Mahfuz Anam was summoned to appear in court in the northern city of Rangpur over one of the 62 suits filed against him for stories published in 2007.

"Anam surrendered to the court this morning and he was granted bail," his lawyer, Mr Munir Chowdhury, said.

Mr Anam said last month the stories had been based on uncorroborated leaks from the military-backed caretaker government that ruled Bangladesh until Ms Sheikh Hasina became Prime Minister in 2009.

Mr Anam said he had been wrong to publish them, sparking an outcry from government supporters and calls from Ms Hasina's son for the editor to be tried for treason.

Pro-government groups have since filed 62 suits, seeking a total of 1.33 trillion taka (S$24 billion) in damages for defamation, a criminal offence that in Bangladesh also carries a penalty of up to two years in jail.

The reports, based on information supplied by a military cell, were also carried by most other Bangladesh newspapers.

The cell was set up by the-then caretaker government that ruled Bangladesh for two years after a military takeover in 2007, which led to the arrest of Ms Hasina and her main political rival, Ms Khaleda Zia, now leader of the opposition, on corruption charges.

Neither was convicted of any crime and both denied corruption.

Human Rights Watch and other groups have slammed the suits, saying they "are part of a larger, organised assault on independent media".

Criminal defamation cases are rarely brought before the courts in Bangladesh. But Ms Hasina on Monday night accused Mr Anam and the editor of Prothom Alo, Bangladesh's largest-circulated daily and a sister company of the Daily Star, of conspiring against her.

"They ran the reports either as paid DGFI (the military intelligence agency) agents or because they were involved in a conspiracy," she told Parliament, according to an online news portal, bdnews24.com.

"What kind of ties could one have with those who tortured teachers, students and politicians?"

Fears over freedom of speech have been mounting in Bangladesh, which has seen a spate of murders of secular bloggers and publishers.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2016, with the headline 'Top Bangladesh editor gets bail in libel case'. Print Edition | Subscribe