"Should not have been detained in the first place"
Global rights bodies and campaigners of freedom of expression have said writer Mushtaq Ahmed should not have been detained in the first place and that his death raises serious questions about the treatment of prisoners unjustly held in Bangladeshi jails.
In statements issued yesterday, they also called for full and immediate investigation into the death of Mushtaq, dropping of charges against cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore, and move to repeal the Digital Security Act.
"Mushtaq Ahmed's death raises serious questions about the treatment of prisoners unjustly held in Bangladeshi jails, which the government has a responsibility to answer promptly and fully," said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, PEN America's director of Free Expression at Risk Programs.
"Not only should Ahmed have never been detained for his independent expression and critical views in the first place, his unjust death under the authorities' watch immediately followed his complaints of torture at the hands of the security forces," she said.
PEN America demanded that the relevant authorities investigate Ahmed's death and cease all efforts to prosecute cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore under similarly "draconian and politically-motivated charges".
Mushtaq was pronounced dead on arrival on Thursday night at Gazipur's Shaheed Tajuddin Ahmad Medical College Hospital, after being brought there from Kashimpur High Security Jail.
He and political cartoonist Kishore had been held since May last year for allegedly violating the country's Digital Security Act by spreading rumors and misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic on Facebook.
Mushtaq and Kishore were only formally charged under the DSA earlier this month.
The circumstances and cause of Mushtaq's death are not yet known.
Jyotirmoy Barua, Mushtaq's lawyer, said neither he nor Mushtaq's family members had been contacted by authorities informing them of the death. He learned about it via social media, he told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based global body for freedom of expression.
On February 23, Mushtaq appeared in court and was in decent health, according to what Jyotirmoy told CPJ.
At that court appearance, Mushtaq expressed concern about the health of Kishore, CPJ said in its statement.
"At the hearing, Kishore passed a note to his brother stating that he had been 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."
"The note did not describe the exact nature of the abuse," according to the sources CPJ interviewed.
"CPJ repeatedly called the Bangladesh Prison Headquarters and the Inspector General of Prisons, Md Mominur Rahman Mamun, for comment, but no one answered.
"CPJ also emailed the prison headquarters, but did not receive any immediate response," the organisation added in its statement.
"Mushtaq Ahmed's death in a Bangladeshi prison, where he never should have been detained in the first place, is a devastating and unconscionable loss," said Aliya Iftikhar, CPJ's senior Asia researcher.
"The Bangladeshi government must allow an independent inquiry into how Mushtaq Ahmed died and move immediately to repeal the Digital Security Act, which it has used repeatedly and unjustly against journalists."
Brad Adams, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, in a statement also said the writer should not have been detained in the first place.
He said authorities should immediately open a transparent and independent investigation into the circumstances of Mushtaq'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.
"They should heed calls from the UN and others to immediately release cartoonist Kishore Ahmed and others currently held in custody just for speaking out," Brad Adams said.
Amnesty International's South Asia Campaigner Saad Hammadi, said, "Mushtaq Ahmed's death in prison is the effect of the authority's cruel 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."