International Community Slams Bangladesh After Writer’s Death in Jail

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
International Community Slams Bangladesh After Writer’s Death in Jail Activists hold banners and shout slogans during a demonstration following the death in jail of Bangladeshi writer Mushtaq Ahmed in Dhaka, Feb. 26, 2021.

International rights groups and foreign envoys on Friday voiced grave concern about the repression of free speech in Bangladesh after a writer arrested under its draconian Digital Security Act died following ten months in jail for “anti-government remarks.”

Mushtaq Ahmed, a 53-year-old businessman and writer, died late Thursday after suddenly falling ill at a high security prison in the central city of Gazipur, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told reporters.

He had been refused bail six times since his arrest – the last time two days before his death.

Ambassadors of 13 foreign missions in Dhaka, including those of the United States, Canada, and several European countries, expressed “grave concern” over Ahmed’s death.

“We call on the Government of Bangladesh to conduct a swift, transparent, and independent inquiry into the full circumstances of Mr. Mushtaq Ahmed’s death,” their joint statement said.

Ahmed’s shocking death has “sent a chill through Bangladesh civil society,” according to Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“Posting satire about the ruling Awami League on Facebook should not amount to the equivalent of a death sentence,” Adams, Asia director at the global rights watchdog, said in a statement.

Covid-related criticism

Ahmed had published an article on Facebook criticizing the shortage of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers amid the coronavirus pandemic, PEN America and HRW said.

He had also shared satire artist Ahmed Kabir Kishore’s cartoons about alleged corruption in the government response to the pandemic.

Ahmed and Kishore were arrested in the first week of May 2020 and charged with violating the Digital Security Act.

They had been arrested “on charges of spreading anti-government remarks and rumors regarding the coronavirus situation and various law enforcement agencies,” on social media, police said at the time of their arrest.

The act punishes those who produce or distribute content that “hurts religious sentiments or religious values” or “destroys communal harmony, or creates unrest or disorder” with up to10 years in prison.

It allows police to arrest people without a warrant and seize computers, electronic devices or a whole computer system if they suspect online crimes could take place.

Last year, at least 142 people faced cases under the Digital Security Act, which was passed by the ruling Awami League government in October 2018, according to rights group Odhikar.

“Most of the cases were filed by the law enforcement agencies or the leaders of the ruling party and their front organization. And the courts rejected bail for many of those arrested,” an Odhikar spokesperson said.

Friday marked the death anniversary of secular blogger Avijit Roy, who was hacked to death by al-Qaeda-affiliated militants six years ago. Roy was killed at a time when a surge in Islamic extremism targeted writers, activists and intellectuals for their alleged atheism.

“In the past, we saw that the extremists and militants killed the people for difference of opinion. Now we see the writers are being arrested and they have been dying in jails for writing against the government,” Robin Ahsan, a Bangladeshi poet and publisher, told BenarNews on Friday.


Citizens light candles on the spot near Dhaka University where secular writer and blogger Avijit Roy was hacked to death, to commemorate the sixth anniversary of his murder, Feb. 26, 2021. [BenarNews]

Concern for Kishore

The Bangladesh government has set up a two-member inquiry committee to investigate Ahmed’s death, S. M. Tarikul Islam, deputy commissioner of Gazipur district, told reporters on Friday. The committee has been told to submit a report in two days.

Home minister Khan said that a post-mortem would reveal the cause of Ahmed’s death.

“What I have come to know from the inspector general of prisons is that he was given treatment at the prison hospital as he suddenly fell ill. As his condition deteriorated, he was shifted to Tajuddin Memorial hospital in Gazipur. He died there,” Khan said.

He said Ahmed was in jail because he had “violated law and order or the faith of others more than once in his writings. That is why many people filed lawsuits.”

But Ahmed’s father described his son’s detention differently.

“They have committed grave injustice with my son,” Abdur Razzaque told Al Jazeera.

“I am not in a position to say anything further. My only son is dead.”

In its statement, the press freedom advocacy group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said that Ahmed appeared to be in decent health when he appeared in court on February 23.

Local media reported that both he and the cartoonist Kishore were visibly underweight earlier this month.

Ahmed’s death sparked calls for the immediate release of Kishore, who is diabetic and has reported abuse by prison guards, according to the advocacy group Cartoonists Rights Network International.

“But we are now quite convinced that the cartoonist is in imminent danger of death. His immediate release is absolutely essential,” it said.

In December, human rights experts at the United Nations had expressed serious concern about Kishore’s incarceration, saying his health was deteriorating.

“Criticism of government policy, including through political satire and cartoons, is permitted under the rights to freedom of expression and cultural rights, and should not be criminalized,” they had said.

“Worst form of repression”

Ahmed’s death inspired a chorus of calls for the repeal of the Digital Security Act.

Rights group Amnesty International said it was evidence of the worst that can happen given Bangladesh’s practice of prolonging detention of people without trial or conviction.

“We are witnessing the worst form of repression that a law like the Digital Security Act can bring on a person. No one should have to die solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression,” Amnesty’s Saad Hammadi said on Twitter.

The Bangladeshi government must “move immediately to repeal the Digital Security Act, which it has used repeatedly and unjustly against journalists,” said Aliya Iftikhar, CPJ’s senior Asia researcher.

Hundreds of people protested in various parts of Dhaka Friday over Ahmed’s death. A rally in Dhaka’s Shahbagh Square caused traffic jams, and police fired tear gas on hundreds of angry protesters calling for justice and repeal of the law.


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