Bangladesh: No accountability for killing of Mushtaq Ahmed 100 days on

100 days on since the death in custody of writer and critic Mushtaq Ahmed, no one has been held accountable for his killing. Global civil society alliance CIVICUS calls on the Bangladesh authorities to immediately establish an independent investigation into his death and to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Mushtaq Ahmed was arrested with cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore, in May 2020. Ahmed had published an article criticising the shortage of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers and had shared Kishore’s cartoons about corruption in the government’s response to the pandemic. They were held incommunicado for hours after they were picked up by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) from different locations in Dhaka. Following a social media outcry, the RAB officially handed them over to the Metropolitan police. The men were repeatedly denied bail and remained in pre-trial detention for nearly nine months before they were officially charged in February 2021.

Prison authorities told the media that when Ahmed “suddenly fell ill” the evening of 25 February 2021 he was taken directly to the jail hospital. He was pronounced dead later that day. Human rights groups have raised concerns about allegations of torture in custody by state security agencies against both Mushtaq Ahmed and Ahmed Kabir Kishore.

“The government must stop dragging its feet and establish a prompt, independent and transparent investigation into the death of Mushtaq Ahmed. His death in detention, where he should not have been in the first place, is a tragedy and compounded by the utterly shameful delay in bringing those involved in his death to justice. It highlights the ongoing climate of impunity in Bangladesh,” said Josef Benedict, Asia Pacific researcher for CIVICUS.

CIVICUS remains concerned about the use of repressive measures to silence critical reporting by journalists as well as online critics. Most recently, Rozina Islam, a senior reporter was arrested in May 2021 for her investigative journalism and has been accused of stealing confidential official documents and espionage. She has produced several investigative reports critical of the public health sector during the COVID-19 pandemic. If convicted, she faces up to 14 years in prison and the possibility of the death penalty.

The Digital Security Act continues to be the weapon of choice to stifle dissent, to suppress the right to freedom of expression and to target and harass journalists and human rights defenders. In April 2021, Abu Tayeb Munshi, a journalist from National Television (NTV), Dainik Loksomaj and Khulna Gazette was arrested in Khulna city on 20 April 2021 under the repressive Digital Security Act for uploading a Facebook post about alleged corruption. Cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore has been released on bail but is still facing charges under the Digital Security Act.

“All those detained under the Digital Security Act for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and opinion must be released immediately. The government must also suspend the application of the Digital Security Act and conduct a review of its provisions to bring them in line with international human rights law and standards,” said Benedict.

Civic space has deteriorated drastically under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government, which has used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to further censor free speech and crack down on critics. Research by the CIVICUS Monitor shows that human rights defenders have been systematically targeted even those in exile. Press freedom is under assault, with arrests of journalists and numerous news sites critical of the government have been blocked. Peaceful protests have been met by violence from the authorities and by non-state actors linked to the ruling party. Hundreds have been reported forcibly disappeared by security forces and law-enforcement agencies over the last decade and torture and ill-treatment in detention is rampant.

Civic space in Bangladesh is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.