The democratically elected dispensations in the subcontinent suffer from a common predilection that their ruling leadership, sooner or later, get entrapped by notions of self-grandeur and construe any criticism of their governance as personal attacks and often retaliate vehemently through excessive and injudicious use of state power. Sheikh Hasina Wazed, PM of Bangladesh is no exception whose paranoia now equals all such democratically empowered rulers in the region.
Her recent severe action against a writer who had the compunction to criticise her governance elicited calls from the United Nations for Bangladesh to overhaul its security law. International and local rights groups demanded a swift probe into the death of the writer 10 months after he was arrested over comments posted on social media. Ambassadors from 13 countries, including the United States, France, Britain, Canada and Germany, expressed “grave concern” over the case.
The case pertains to Mushtaq Ahmed, 53, who was arrested in Dhaka in May last year for making comments on social media that criticised the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic particularly Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s handling of the issue. He had been detained under the controversial digital security laws that critics say are used to muzzle dissent. He was denied bail at least six times. Ahmed’s death last week sparked protests on the streets and on social media and prompted global human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, to urge Bangladesh’s government to conduct a thorough investigation. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) demanded the government cancel the 2018 Digital Security Act.
Hundreds of Bangladeshi activists staged a fourth day of protests over the death of the writer in detention. Students tried to march to the home ministry in Dhaka demanding action over what they called the murder of Mushtaq Ahmed in a high-security jail, as well as the repeal of the Digital Security Act (DSA). Riot police stopped them 100 metres from the government complex that houses all major ministries. The protesters also demanded the release of more than a dozen activists detained during clashes with police since the death. Live footage showed a road and footpath in front of the National Press Club — a favourite protest site in the capital Dhaka — turning into a battleground as police beat protesters with batons to disperse them. Clashes ensued as student activists from the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) hurled rocks and attacked officers with plastic pipes, prompting police to retaliate.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet urged Bangladesh to ensure a transparent probe into Ahmed’s death. UN High Commissioner stressed that “there needs to be an overhaul of the Digital Security Act under which Ahmed was charged -– and all those detained under this act for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and opinion must be released,” she said in a statement. Bachelet also expressed serious concern at allegations that Ahmed has been subjected to torture or other ill treatment” and added “the government must ensure that its investigation into Ahmed’s death is prompt, transparent and independent, and that any allegations of ill-treatment of other detainees are also immediately investigated.
More groups also planned protests during the day over the death of Ahmed, and to demand the release of cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore, who was detained last year with the dead writer and charged with same charges. Kishore’s lawyers said during previous court proceedings that he was mercilessly tortured in custody. At least 10 other people were charged with sedition under the digital security law in the same case Ahmed faced. While a postmortem report said Mushtaq Ahmed died of natural causes, the protesters and his lawyers alleged he was tortured, despite being in poor health and held in prison for nine months. Police had charged Ahmed with attempting to tarnish the image of the nation and spread confusion under the Digital Security Act.
The Digital Security Act includes a jail sentence of up to 14 years for any propaganda or campaign against the country’s independence war, its founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the national anthem or flag. It also says a person can be jailed for up to 10 years for destroying communal harmony or creating unrest or disorder. The broad characterisation of charges led Amnesty International to conclude that the law is plagued by a lack of clear definitions, explanations and exceptions, including repressive non-bailable penalties for at least 14 offences.
The country’s high court has put off a decision on whether Kishore should get bail. Nonetheless, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina shrugged off criticism of her government’s rights record, international concern over the internet law and Ahmed’s death. Sheikh Hasina says the law is necessary to maintain order but the opposition parties and editors have warned that the scope of the law can be misused against critics. TW