New Delhi: Human rights groups and heads of missions of several countries in Dhaka have urged a transparent and independent probe into the death in custody of writer Mushtaq Ahmed in a Bangladesh prison on February 25.
Ahmed was arrested by the authorities for a Facebook post that criticised the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and had been in pre-trial detention for the last nine months.
In his Facebook post on ‘I Am Bangladeshi’ page, Ahmed had criticised the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers. He had also shared a cartoon by Ahmed Kabir Kishore on alleged corruption in the government’s response to the pandemic.
Reacting to his death, Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch said on Saturday, “Ahmed’s death has sent a chill through Bangladesh civil society and should force the government into ending this peremptory treatment of peaceful criticism”.
Since the authorities had also arrested a cartoonist, Ahmed Kabir Kishore along with Ahmed in May 2020, Adams had also stated that “posting satire about the ruling Awami League on Facebook should not amount to the equivalent of a death sentence”.
Reacting strongly to Ahmed’s death, Adams said: “Ahmed died in custody for simply speaking out for better protection for healthcare workers amid the pandemic. Bangladesh authorities should take this devastating moment to heed calls from civil society groups, as well as the UN and other experts, to immediately release all those currently held just for speaking out, and to protect the right to free expression.”
While both Ahmed and Kishore were arrested in May last year, their bail pleas were denied on six occasions each. Recently on February 4, they were also charged under the 2018 Digital Security Act for posting on Facebook “propaganda, false or offensive information, and information that could destroy communal harmony and create unrest”.
The Human Rights Watch has also accused the Bangladesh authorities of torturing Kishore. It said during a court appearance on February 23, Kishore told his lawyers that he was being physically tortured in detention and that he was suffering from a leg infection and an inner ear infection.
“Kishore’s allegations of torture and inadequate care are consistent with well-documented evidence of torture in Bangladesh security force custody, and raise serious concerns over the circumstances of Ahmed’s death,” the organisation stated. Incidentally, during the same hearing, Ahmed had also raised concern around Kishore’s deteriorating health and the inadequate medical care he was getting.
In light of this, questions are being asked around how Ahmed, who appeared well and healthy during the hearing on February 23, “suddenly fell ill” on the evening of February 25, as claimed by the prison authorities before the media.
The prison authorities said he was taken directly to the jail hospital and later pronounced dead at the Gazipur Shaheed Tajuddin Ahmed Medical College Hospital. The Human Rights Watch said it was “aware of credible allegations that Ahmed was taken to the hospital dead and in handcuffs”.
The issue has also caused consternation among various countries. A statement was issued on behalf of the heads of missions of 13 of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries on the death of Ahmed in custody. It urged the Bangladesh government to carry out a “swift, transparent, and independent inquiry into the full circumstances” of the writer’s death.
The heads of missions have also assured that they would continue to “engage with the Government of Bangladesh on [their] Governments’ wider concerns about the provisions and implementation of the DSA, as well as questions about its compatibility with Bangladesh’s obligations under international human rights laws and standards.”
Meanwhile, the incident has drawn widespread condemnation from across the globe as the Digital Security Act enacted by Bangladesh is being seen as an instrument aimed at stifling free speech. The UN high commissioner for human rights, UN independent experts, the European Union as also some journalists in Bangladesh have called into question the Act, which they claimed violates the international law.
Though over 311 members of Bangladesh civil society had in May 2020 urged the Central government to release those detained under the Act, and Gowher Rizvi, the international affairs adviser to the prime minister, had earlier this month also said that “some of the wordings are very loose and vague, which leaves it open to its abuse”, it did not result in the release of either Kishore or Ahmed.
Despite the fact that thousands of other prisoners are being released from the overcrowded prisons due to the pandemic, they both continued to remain incarcerated. Now UN experts have once again called for Kishore’s release on humanitarian grounds and urged dropping of charges “in light of Bangladesh’s obligations under international human rights law.” His next bail hearing is due to come up in March.