United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Monday urged the government of Bangladesh to ensure a prompt, transparent and independent investigation into the death in custody of writer Mushtaq Ahmed.
Mr Ahmed died on 25 February after he was transferred to a prison hospital for treatment. He had 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 that it will investigate Mr Ahmed’s death.
In a statement Bachelet said , “There needs to be an overhaul of the Digital Security Act under which Ahmed was charged – and all those detained under this Act for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and opinion must be released.”
The high commissioner also expressed serious concern at allegations that another man, cartoonist Ahmed Kishore, detained on similar charges 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 Ahmed and Ahmed Kishore were among 11 individuals arrested in May 2020 under the Digital Security Act for allegedly spreading misinformation about COVID-19 or criticizing the Government response.
They were repeatedly denied bail and remained in pre-trial detention for nearly nine months before they were officially charged on 20 January 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 Tuesday last week, 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 its investigation into Ahmed’s death is prompt, transparent and independent, and that any allegations of ill-treatment of other detainees are also immediately investigated,” Bachelet said.
According to the statement, allegations of torture and ill-treatment by the Rapid Action Battalion have been a long-standing concern. The UN Committee Against Torture in 2019 recommended the Government commission an independent inquiry 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 - 35 people have been reportedly injured and 7 arrested. Another activist, Ruhul Amin has also reportedly been arrested under the Digital Security Act for a post on Facebook over Mushtaq’s death.
“Various UN human rights bodies have long raised concerns about the ill-defined, overly broad provisions of the Digital Security Act that have been used to punish criticism of the government,” Bachelet said.
“Bangladesh urgently needs to suspend the application of the Digital Security Act 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,” the UN high commissioner added.