THE death of entrepreneur and writer Mushtaq Ahmed in jail custody on Thursday sparked off protests. In May 2020, the Rapid Action Battalion arrested Mushtaq under the draconian Digital Security Act allegedly for giving anti-government postings on Facebook and he had been detained until his death. The prime minister on Saturday, while giving an address on Bangladesh’s LDC graduation, termed the death undesirable, but said that it was equally undesirable to create unrest as anyone could die after falling sick in jail. The prime minister’s generic statement about death sounds true, but there are underlying concerns surrounding Mushtaq’s death that she needs to look into before drawing any conclusion, especially when there is a committee that the government has set up to establish the cause of death. Instead of quickly making judgement about the protests as a ploy to create ‘unrest’, the prime minister should ensure a credible and independent investigation of the death and allegations of a politically motivated use of the law against him.
While no one should be arrested for exercising the freedom of expression and holding dissent which seem to be the allegation against Mushtaq, every detainee has democratic rights to be treated equally. Mushtaq’s family and friends have alleged that from the moment of arrest until his death, his rights had been violated. On May 4, 2020, the battalion personnel in plain clothes picked him up without a warrant for arrest and he had not been produced in court for two days although the Code of Criminal Procedures requires the law enforcement agencies to produce a detainee in court within 24 hours of arrest and ensure an access to legal counsel. The fact that a cartoonist, who was also arrested the same day and accused in the same case as Mushtaq, has alleged that he was tortured in custody, requires that the government should investigate the allegation of custodial torture under the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act 2013. Mushtaq was denied bail six times including the last prayer in which his lawyer sought bail on grounds of his failing health on January 6, 2021. The way Mushtaq died in jail custody raises serious questions about the healthcare infrastructure in the prison system. An access to emergency health care after lock-up, when prisoners are locked in their cells for the night, is fatally inadequate. It appears that Mushtaq’s death could have been prevented if he had been taken quickly to the hospital with necessary medical support.
It is in this context that the prime minister’s remark on the death of Mushtaq seems to be an attempt at deflecting attention from procedural lapses in legal proceedings and the violations of legal rights of an under-trial prisoner. Instead of denying its constitutionally mandated responsibility of protecting the lives of citizens, prisoner or otherwise, the government must ensure a credible and independent investigation of the allegations raised about the death of Mushtaq in jail custody.
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