UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has urged the Bangladesh government to ensure an investigation into the death of writer Mushtaq Ahmed in custody is prompt, transparent and independent, and suspend application of the Digital Security Act.
"Bangladesh urgently needs to suspend the application of the Digital Security Act [DSA] and conduct a review of its provisions to bring them in line with the requirements of international human rights law. My office stands ready to continue its dialogue with the authorities in this regard," she said in a statement on Monday.
Mushtaq died on February 25 after he was transferred to a hospital for treatment from Kashimpur jail. He spent nine months in pre-trial detention for publishing an article and sharing Facebook posts critical of the government's Covid-19 response.
The government has announced it is investigating his death, which triggered demonstrations and protests from all walks of life demanding the DSA be revoked. On Sunday, 51 eminent citizens demanded a judicial probe into the death and abolishment of the law.
On February 26, thirteen heads of foreign missions in Bangladesh, including of the US, the UK, EU, called on the government to conduct swift, transparent and independent enquiry into the death, and sought to engage with the government 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.
UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said there needs to be an overhaul of the DSA under which Mushtaq was charged and many were detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression.
The High Commissioner also expressed serious concern at allegations that another man detained on similar charges, cartoonist Ahmed Kishore, has been subjected to torture or other ill treatment.
She reminded the authorities of their obligation to promptly and effectively investigate the claims and to ensure his safety and well-being.
Mushtaq and Kishore were among 11 individuals arrested in May last year in a case filed under the DSA.
The two were repeatedly denied bail and remained in pre-trial detention for nearly nine months before they were officially charged on January 20 this year for posting "propaganda, false or offensive information, and information that could destroy communal harmony and create unrest".
They were brought before a court on February 23 where Kishore alleged that he had been subjected to torture by two Rapid Action Battalion officers and reportedly appeared visibly injured.
The government must ensure that any allegations of ill-treatment of other detainees are also immediately investigated, Bachelet said, adding that allegations of torture and ill-treatment by the Rab have been a long-standing concern.
The UN Committee Against Torture in 2019 recommended that the Bangladesh government commission an independent enquiry into allegations that members of the unit have carried out torture, arbitrary arrests, unacknowledged detention, disappearances and extrajudicial killings as a matter of routine policy, and to ensure that the personnel conducting the inquiry receive effective protection from harassment or intimidation.
The High Commissioner also expressed concern at reports that police had allegedly used excessive force during protests demanding justice over Mushtaq's death.
Another activist, Ruhul Amin, has also reportedly been arrested under the DSA for a post on Facebook over Mushtaq's death.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) also called for a full investigation into his death in custody and the urgent repeal of the DSA, which it said is being abused to arrest critics.
IFJ General Secretary Anthony Bellanger said, "We stand in solidarity with our colleagues in Bangladesh as they mourn the loss of Mushtaq Ahmed. This writer should have never been imprisoned, let alone die in a high-security jail.
"This is a crime against freedom of expression. The long list of incarcerations against journalists and activists is evidence enough that the DSA must be urgently repealed."
'VIOLATION OF DIPLOMATIC ETIQUETTE'
Information Minister Hasan Mahmud yesterday said the statements of foreigners over Mushtaq's death violated diplomatic etiquette, reports BSS.
"Some ambassadors gave statements over the death and that violated diplomatic etiquette. There is law in their own countries, arrests are made and punishments are given in line with the law," he said.
The minister was talking to reporters after addressing a programme marking the second founding anniversary of the daily Somoyer Alo in the capital.