It was just after midnight on May 11, 2007 when a group of Bangladeshi soldiers and police came to the door of 26-year-old Tasneem Khalil’s apartment in the capital Dhaka.
The South Asian nation was in the midst of a four-month old political crisis after the military intervened amid a dispute between the country’s major political parties over the conduct of elections.
Khalil was a journalist for The Daily Star, one of the country’s most influential newspapers, and had also worked as a stringer for CNN and aided Human Rights Watch in producing a report on a unit of the Bangladeshi police notorious for employing torture and extrajudicial killings. He had also written an article in Bangladesh’s Forum magazine detailing how the military’s Directorate General of Forces Intelligence [DGFI] was helping Islamic militants in the country
His work had made him powerful enemies. When the security forces entered his apartment that night, they seized his passport, cell phone and computers. They then led him away blindfolded to a torture chamber where he was interrogated, beaten and threatened with death, according to his testimony afterwards. After 22 hours in custody, he was released after a public campaign on his behalf led by Human Rights Watch and CNN.
A decade later, Bangladesh has returned to civilian rule–though freedom of expression in the country remains under assault after a wave of stabbing attacks on prominent atheists, intellectuals and bloggers by Islamic militants. As for Khalil and his family, they live in exile in Malmö, Sweden. Now a Swedish citizen, he’s launched a human rights magazine, Independent World Report, and recently authored a book on government death squads in South Asia.
Khalil spoke with Global Journalist’s Eloïse Speleers about his incarceration, his work as a journalist and his success in making a new life in Europe.
Global Journalist: What kind of stories did you write while you were in Bangladesh?
Tasneem Khalil: All of my investigative reporting was about human rights abuses by the security forces. I was the author of the first in-depth report about Rapid Action Battalion [a police anti-terror unit] back in 2006. Since then I’ve specialized in reporting on those paramilitary death squads, human rights abuses perpetrated by them, and counter-terrorism.
GJ: What kind of pressures were considered normal for a Bangladeshi journalist?
Khalil: Direct pressures were on me. I knew I was being followed. For a long time, I knew I was under surveillance. I used to receive threatening, anonymous phone calls. But it really depends on what kind of stories you were working on. If you’re working on human rights abuse or in sports journalism, the threats were different.
Now, in 2016, the threats are still really terrible. It’s worse now. There are some topics right now that no one wants to write about in Bangladesh. And no one actually writes about. No Bangladeshi journalist writes stories about human rights abuses.
GJ: What story got you in trouble?
Khalil: You need to remember that I was never charged with anything. I wasn’t officially arrested; it was a case of illegal detention. Officially it didn’t happen. They just told the UN that they had taken me for questioning.
I did a story how the DGFI, the Bangladesh military intelligence agency, was harboring Islamic groups connected to terrorism. I was the first person to announce that the DGFI had very strange bedfellows. Or it might be because I was already in their target and they were sort of going one journalist after the other.
I’m not the first or the last [Bangladeshi] journalist to be detained and tortured but I’m sort of the only one who spoke up. After I came to Sweden, I knew I wanted to release my version of what happened. I’m sort of the only journalist who has this very detailed testimony of what happened.
Unfortunately, no other journalist has come forward with his or her story. Even when democracy came back to Bangladesh, no one actually bothered to re-visit those dark days or months. Now we have a series of bloggers, publishers, authors and writers who are coming out into exile. It’s important to talk, to say, “There were other people and there will be other people.”
GJ: How did you decide it was the right time to leave?
Khalil: After I was released from custody, my wife, our six month-old child and me were hiding in a diplomat’s house in Dhaka.
After one month of hiding, I decided I had to get out of the country. We had indications that I would be taken again. I was arrested on May 11th, 2007 and we reached Sweden on June 6th. When we reached Sweden, we had three suitcases; most of it was our child’s stuff. We had around 500 dollars in our pocket.
GJ: How did you re-build your life in Sweden?
Khalil: We worked very hard. We studied. We became part of the society. I continued working for Human Rights Watch. In 2008, I worked for a Swedish organization called Dag Hammarskjold Foundation looking into how human rights abusers from South Asian countries end up in United Nations’ peacekeeping missions.
I also wrote as a columnist for Nerikes Allehanda, a Swedish newspaper. Then, in 2009 we launched Independent World Report. We reconstructed our life here. Our daughter is born here. Our son was born in Dhaka but he grew up here.
GJ: In your testimony to Human Rights Watch about your torture, you say were forced to make a videotaped confession of working against the state. Has this ever been used against you?
Khalil: No one has ever came back with that. There was only one incident where the military intelligence agency actually used some of the emails they had found on my [computer]. In 2007, they passed that information to a Bangladeshi tabloid newspaper.
They wrote a story saying I was involved in some kind of conspiracy to topple the government. Unfortunately, after all those years, the editor who was behind that story is now in exile out of Bangladesh.
GJ: Freedom of expression is still under attack in Bangladesh. Do you see that improving?
Khalil: I don’t think the situation will get any better any time soon. Bangladeshi people in exile have the responsibility to keep talking about what’s happening. It’s not only my responsibility. It’s also other exiles’ responsibility, such as [publisher and knife attack survivor] Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury. Hopefully, ten years down the line, we’ll have the opportunity to make it right.
GJ: What message do you try to pass through your reporting?
Khalil: The only message I want to pass is “never shut your mouth off”. Always, always keep talking. If you do not talk, if you do not write, it doesn’t exist. For people in exile from Bangladesh now, if you don’t write while you’re in exile, you do not exist.