On February 25, the most reviled and draconian Digital Security Act (DSA) claimed its first victim, and gave the nation its first Digital Security Act "martyr". Mushtaq Ahmed was arrested by the Rapid Action Battalion on May 6 last year under the Digital Security Act, for "spreading rumours and carrying out anti-government activities", along with cartoonist Kishore, who is lucky to be still alive. There cannot be a worse end to one's life than to die in incarceration. He was jailed in a case in which the investigation agencies had taken nearly nine months to submit the charge sheet.
Mushtaq met a sad end. But appropriating Oscar Wilde's remarks in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, let me say that he "does not die a death of shame, on a day of dark disgrace".
Mushtaq was a poet and Kishore is a cartoonist. Both sought to expose the follies of the government, an undertaking which has now come to be equated with an act of lese-majesty, and everyone in the administration and the ruling party is now like a monarch in his or her own way. Even revealing theft of government relief goods risks the invocation of the DSA, as we witnessed during the height of the pandemic, by the alleged culprits, most of whom were local leaders and elected office holders. Reportedly, both Mushtaq and Kishore suffered torture for pointing out the gross irregularities in the health sector. Should criticising the government merit such treatment? Can the administration avoid responsibility for the death of Mushtaq?
The raft of charges levied against the two include spreading propaganda against the Liberation War of Bangladesh, Father of the Nation, the national anthem and national flag; tarnishing the image of the nation; spreading confusion; creating hostility, hatred among people; destroying communal harmony or creating unrest and disorder; and threatening to deteriorate law and order. Unfortunately, we do not have the specifics that back up these allegations. No concrete evidence to support the charges have been made public as yet, and of the six or seven witnesses, none has given any testimony to the police. Does it require a Sherlock Holmes to determine the merit of the case which the police have not been able to put up cogently? Obviously, there is little substance to prosecute the two. But the law must be bent to inflict pain on the accused, because what they say does not sit well with the authorities or their minions.
We are not aware of what the rumours were that the alleged offenders have been accused of spreading. Cartoons, a perfectly lawful way of reflecting a prevailing situation in the country, and even a Facebook post can land you in jail, make you suffer torture, and may even cause the sudden abridgement of your longevity, as was the case of Mushtaq.
When does a government's threshold of tolerance of criticism and dissent reach the lowest level? When are critics, who point out gross irregularities and systemic shortcomings, snubbed most ruthlessly under the pretext of state security? When does pointing out societal injustices risk not only incarceration but also inhuman torture, and in some cases, death? It is so when the rulers find themselves on a sticky wicket, when they feel inwardly that they no longer command the support of the people. The only way power can be retained without popular consent is by ruthlessly snuffing out dissent, by tolerating no one who dares to step out of the order of things ordained by the government, by suppressing in every way any attempt to expose the failings of the administration.
The "beauty" of the DSA is that even a cry of anguish at the death of one's dear and near ones can be construed as anti-state, or an attempt to create social disorder and disturb social harmony. For example, take the case of some of those who were arrested for staging protests and demonstrations after the death of Mushtaq. They were charged with creating social disorder.
Regrettably, the Mushtaq episode betrays the systematic distortion of the legal system, where the process is not only violated wantonly, but also applied so selectively on those that incur the wrath of the administration for merely exercising their fundamental rights.
In certain cases, under-trial prisoners on grave charges have been found to be spending days on end in hospital. Political link is the only credential that earns them the benefit of the comfort of the prison hospital, and spares them the discomfort of a dingy prison cell. Many felons with political links conveniently develop a health problem as soon as they are arrested, and are promptly sent to the hospital, which becomes their abode till the media points that out.
In other cases, the process moves ever so slowly. Decades pass before a charge sheet is presented to the court. What should we make of the Sagar-Runi murder case in which a charge sheet has not been submitted even after nine years since the day the journalist couple were brutally done away with? Is there a link between this and the Tanwir Muhammad Taqi murder case, in which the charge sheet has not been submitted even after eight years since Taqi's body was found afloat in the Buriganga in Narayanganj on March 6, 2013? Is it that the killers are well-connected? We believe the truth will emerge someday.
On the contrary, the system moves remarkably fast in certain cases. Look at the case of Erfan Selim—how quickly the case against him for holding illegal weapon and narcotics has been disposed of. What would have been the situation had he belonged to any other party? And in another instance, two brothers accused of attempting to murder managed to escape by fleeing the country during the peak of the pandemic and worldwide travel ban. Their flight, given the circumstances of their departure and acquisition of travel documents, betrays the complicity of the administration in the entire episode. Not only that, they were granted bail within five hours of returning home. Of the many benefits of being close to the party in power, one is that you can literally get away with attempted murder charges.
What would have been the government reaction to a BNP leader suggesting to an OC of his local thana on telephone to stage a bomb attack on his police station in order to frame someone opposed to one of his personal projects? This is exactly what a ruling party MP from Jashore is alleged to have suggested on his mobile phone to the OC of Keshabpur police station. Predictably, not an eye lid has dropped. One is certain that all hell would have broken loose had he not belonged to the AL.
Unfortunately, neither Mushtaq nor Kishore had the benefit of such political links. That is why it took eight months to submit charge sheets instead of the two months mandated by law. That is why they were denied bail six times. Not only were the police months late in submitting the charge sheets, they also had asked for remand of Mushtaq just two days before he died.
The most reprehensible aspect of the application of the DSA is that the government is being conflated with the state—one can be arrested for making anti-government comments or assuming positions that run contrary to that of the government, as the charges against Mushtaq and Kishore reveal. But is it not the duty of the citizens, in whatever individual capacity they are, to criticise the faults of the administration, to hold the rulers to account, and for those who dare, particularly the intelligentsia and the civil society, to speak truth to power? It seems most of the so-called members of the civil society and intellectuals, barring a few exceptions, have become spineless crustaceans cowering to the might of the government.
People deserve answers for the death of Mushtaq.
This hallowed land of ours has been consecrated by the blood of the martyrs many times—in 1971, and preceding that, in 1952 and 1969, and we cannot forget 1987 and Noor Hossain and his sacrifice for democracy. Each of these incidents sprouted a new phase in the nation's life and added a new chapter in our history.
We are told that the DSA is there to give people security. Do we need a law that takes lives to save lives? Suppressive laws are like a fire-breathing dragon that consumes everything in its way. It is also said that every dragon gives birth to a St. George that slays it. The DSA is a dragon and it must be slain—it must be immediately rescinded, or at least amended.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (Retd), is a former Associate Editor of The Daily Star.