About 300 students and activists have rallied in Bangladesh’s capital 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 say limits free speech.
Protesters on Monday marched through the Dhaka University campus and Dhaka’s streets demanding the release of seven student activists arrested during recent protests denouncing the death of writer Mushtaq Ahmed.
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Ahmed, 53, 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.
Ahmed’s death on Thursday night 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.
The protesters marched towards the country’s home ministry on Monday, also demanding the annulment of the controversial Digital Security Act under which Ahmed was arrested last year.
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’s building 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.
At least 10 other people were charged with sedition under the digital security law in the same case Ahmed faced, including 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. The CPJ also demanded Kishore’s release from prison.
While a postmortem report said 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.
On Monday, the protesters used a loudspeaker to chant slogans that blamed Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for Ahmed’s death.
Police had charged Ahmed with attempting to tarnish the image of the nation and spread confusion.
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”.
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.
The CPJ said the law was being used “repeatedly and unjustly against journalists”.