Activists denounce Bangladesh prison death

DHAKA (AP) — About 300 student activists rallied in Bangladesh’s capital yesterday to denounce the death in prison of a writer and commentator who was arrested last year on charges of violating a sweeping digital security law that critics said chokes freedom of expression.

The protesters marched through the Dhaka University campus and Dhaka’s streets toward the country’s Home Ministry to also demand the annulment of the digital security law and the release of seven student activists arrested during recent protests denouncing the death of 53-year-old Mushtaq Ahmed.

They broke a barricade by removing barbed wire fences on the way to the ministry, but were intercepted by a few hundred police officers outside the ministry in downtown Dhaka.

“The state must take responsibility. He has been killed, it was not a natural death. How come he was held for nine months in jail without any justice?” said one protester, Mahfuza Akhter.

“We want justice,” she said. There were no immediate reports of any violence.

Bangladeshi students clash with police during a protest in Dhaka. PHOTO: AP

Ahmed’s death on Thursday night sparked protests on 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 that the government cancel the security act.

Ahmed was arrested in Dhaka in May last year for making comments on social media that criticised the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. He was denied bail at least six times. At least 10 other people were charged with sedition under the digital security law in the same case Ahmed faced.

The CPJ has demanded the release from prison of political cartoonist Kabir Kishore, who was arrested in the case last year. Kishore’s lawyers said during previous court proceedings that he was “mercilessly tortured” in custody.

While a postmortem report said Ahmed died naturally, the protesters and his lawyers said that he was tortured, and that despite being in poor health was held in prison for nine months and denied bail.

Yesterday, the protesters used a loudspeaker to chant slogans that blamed Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for Ahmed’s death.

Police have said Ahmed attempted to tarnish the image of the nation and spread confusion.