Written by Julfikar Ali Manik and Mujib Mashal
A Bangladeshi writer who was detained for nearly a year over social media posts that were critical of the country’s government has died in jail, officials and family members said Friday, raising alarms about the country’s crackdown on dissent.
The writer, Mushtaq Ahmed, was among 11 people charged early last year over the spread of social media content, including cartoons, that alleged mismanagement and corruption in Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s response to the pandemic.
His case was brought under Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act, a 2018 law that gives the government wide-ranging powers to search, fine and arrest anyone who violates its vague tenets, including violating “the solidarity, financial activities, security, defense, religious values or public discipline of the country.”
Critics say it has been used to stifle dissent. The Asian Human Rights Commission said it had documented the arrest of 138 people last year — journalists, students and political activists — for criticizing Hasina’s government.
Ahmed was held in the high-security Kashimpur prison and was denied bail six times.
Rights organizations demanded an investigation into his death and called for the repeal of the Digital Security Act, which also includes measures to protect against cybercrimes and attacks.
Mohammad Gias Uddin, the senior superintendent of the jail where Ahmed was held, said the writer had lost consciousness Thursday evening and was taken to the prison hospital. Prison guards later took him to a larger medical facility in the nearby city Gazipur, but was he was pronounced dead on arrival, Uddin said.
Doctors at the prison reported that Ahmed “never complained about his health issues,” Uddin said of the writer, who was 54. “He used to take pills for gastric and headache.”
Nafeesur Rahman, a cousin of Ahmed’s who is also a physician, said he had been present during the autopsy.
“I have not found any injury mark anywhere on his body,” Rahman said, adding that Ahmed’s heart was found to be enlarged and that his blood pressure had been very low when he lost his conscious.
The police complaint against Ahmed and the 10 others accused them of spreading misinformation and rumors about the coronavirus and damaging the government’s image by sowing confusion through social media. The charges were nationalistic in tone, accusing them of “posting rumors against the Father of the Nation, the war of independence.”
In one of his last posts on Facebook before his pre-dawn arrest in May by elite forces, Ahmed compared the country’s health minister to a cockroach. In another, he wrote, “When a society laments the loss of an economy more than the loss of human life, it doesn’t need a virus, it’s already sick.”
Aliya Iftikhar, the senior Asia researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists, called his death “a devastating and unconscionable loss.”
Mizanur Rahman, a law professor at the University of Dhaka and a former chairman of Bangladesh’s National Human Rights Commission, said the Digital Security Act was being used to shrink free speech in the country.
“We all have to understand that criticizing the government is not a seditious offense at all,” Rahman said. “Mushtaq Ahmed was not found guilty — he was in jail for nine months only based on allegations of criticizing the government, and his death in jail is totally unacceptable.”
Bangladesh, one of the world’s most densely populated countries, which also has poor health infrastructure, was always going to be vulnerable to the coronavirus. Concerns about the pandemic were compounded by accusations of deep corruption in the increasingly authoritarian government of a country that has been prone to coups and political violence.
Also among those arrested in Ahmed’s case is renowned cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore, who kept a Facebook journal of political cartoons critical of the government called “Life in the Time of Corona.”
Kishore remains in prison despite an appeal by a panel of experts from the United Nations Human Rights Council. The panel said Kishore should be released on humanitarian grounds, just as the government has released thousands of others as a COVID-19 precaution, because of health conditions that make him vulnerable to the coronavirus.
A statement by the Committee to Protect Journalists regarding Ahmed’s death expressed concern that during Kishore’s latest court hearing, on Tuesday, he had reported to relatives that he was “subjected to severe physical abuse while in police custody, sustaining a serious leg injury and ear injuries that have led to infections due to lack of adequate medical care.”
“When my brother Kishore was produced before the court on Feb. 23, I was present there,” Ahsan Kabir, his brother, said in a telephone interview. “Kishore told me that he had been tortured between May 2 and May 6.”