Updated: February 26, 2021 10:56 AM GMT
Protesters demonstrate in Dhaka on Feb. 26 over the death of writer Mushtaq Ahmed. (Photo supplied)
A prominent Bangladeshi writer has died in a high-security prison nine months after he was arrested under the country’s draconian Digital Security Act for criticizing corruption and the government’s poor response to the Covid-19 pandemic on Facebook.
Mushtaq Ahmed, 53, a noted writer and founder of the country’s first commercially successful crocodile farm, died on Feb. 25.
He was transported after suddenly falling ill to Shaheed Tajuddin Medical College, where a doctor declared him dead, said Gias Uddin, jail superintendent of Kashimpur prison in Gazipur district near capital Dhaka.
Ahmed was arrested by the Rapid Action Battalion, a special anti-terror police unit, on May 6 last year on charges of propagating disinformation against the government on social media. He was denied bail six times.
He was among dozens of people including writers, journalists, free thinkers and cartoonists arrested under the DSA, a repressive cyberlaw passed by ruling Awami League government in 2018.
His death has sparked a massive public outcry on social media and protests as his friends and well-wishers claim he was tortured and murdered in custody.
Hundreds of activists and supporters of progressive political and social organizations marched in capital Dhaka on Feb. 26 to demand justice for what they called the “murder of Mushtaq Ahmed by the state.”
The protesters demanded the repeal of the controversial Digital Security Act.
Father Anthony Sen, secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission of Dinajpur Diocese, urged the government to probe the death and punish those responsible.
“This is very sad that a citizen died in police custody. When someone is in police custody, the state must provide all his security and death in custody means that the state has killed him. It is absolutely condemnable and must be probed,” Father Sen told UCA News.
“It is unacceptable in a civilized country that people who elect the government to run the state face arrest, imprisonment and abuses for criticizing mistakes of the authorities.”
The death has also sparked condemnation from abroad.
“How Mushtaq died is less important than the fact that he was in the custody of the state, the government took responsibility for him. So, the government was responsible for this death.” Ali Riaz, a Bangladesh-born US citizen and professor of politics and government at Illinois State University wrote on Facebook.
“Such brutality is not only meant for killing an individual, it has a frightening message for everyone indicating the same for those who dare to speak up.”
New York-based Human Rights Watch issued a statement on Feb. 26 to demand a probe into the death.
"Mushtaq Ahmed died in custody after being held in pre-trial detention for nine months, during which his bail pleas were rejected six times, all for the alleged ‘crime’ of posting criticism of the government's response to the Covid-19 pandemic on Facebook," said Asia director Brad Adams.
Authorities should immediately open a transparent and independent investigation into the circumstances of Ahmed’s death. The government should account for why posting satire about the ruling Awami League on Facebook could amount to the equivalent of a death sentence, he added.
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan told journalists that Ahmed died due to illness and a committee has been formed to investigate whether there was any other reason.
The Digital Security Act, adopted in October 2018, was intended to curb soaring cybercrime in the country. However, it plunged into controversy as it contains vague provisions that effectively muzzle dissent and freedom of speech.
It allows police to detain people without a warrant and sanctions hefty punishment of up to 14 years in jail, a fine of up to 2 million taka (US$24,000) or both.
Eight people have died in police custody in Bangladesh this year, according to Dhaka-based human right organization Ain-O-Salish Kendra (Law and Arbitration Center).
It says 11 people were killed in 2020 in the custody of law enforcement agencies after their arrest. Besides, five people died due to torture by law enforcement agencies before arrest and six were killed in shootings. Some 65 people died in the country's prisons due to various reasons including illness.