Mushtaq Ahmed died in custody at Kashimpur High Security Prison on Thursday after nearly ten months in pre-trial detention

February 25, 2021

(New York, NY) — Bangladeshi writer and journalist Mushtaq Ahmed died in custody at Kashimpur High Security Prison on Thursday after nearly ten months in pre-trial detention for online posts about the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. PEN America demands that authorities launch a full and transparent investigation into Ahmed’s death, as well as drop charges against cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore, his co-defendant who remains in jail and must be released from jail.

Detained since May 6, 2020, Ahmed “suddenly fell ill inside his cell” on the evening of February 25, according to one prison official. The Kashimpur jail superintendent told reporters that he was then taken to Shaheed Tajuddin Medical College Hospital, where the doctor on duty declared Ahmed dead on arrival, just after 8:00 pm local time. The Kashimpur jail superintendent also noted that Ahmed had suffered chest pains, though sources related to Ahmed’s legal team noted that both Ahmed and his co-defendant Kishore appeared visibly weak during their last public appearance in court a week before. Both Ahmed and Kishore had also recently reported that they had been tortured by security forces.

“Mushtaq Ahmed’s death raises serious questions about the treatment of prisoners unjustly held in Bangladeshi jails, which the government has a responsibility to answer promptly and fully,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, PEN America’s director of free expression at risk programs. “Not only should Ahmed have never been detained for his independent expression and critical views in the first place, his unjust death under the authorities’ watch immediately followed his complaints of torture at the hands of the security forces. We demand that the relevant authorities investigate Ahmed’s death and cease all efforts to prosecute cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore under similarly draconian and politically-motivated charges.”

Ahmed had served nearly ten months in pretrial detention related to commentary critical of the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which he posted online. Ahmed was a vocal critic of the allegedly insufficient protective gear for doctors at the onset of the pandemic. Both Ahmed and Kishore were arrested in May 2020 under the Digital Security Act, accused of spreading rumors and misinformation about COVID-19 and undermining the image of late Bangladeshi national leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the current prime minister. Kishore’s arrest follows the publication of his cartoon series “Life in the Time of Corona.” Despite repeated requests for release on bail, courts have continually ordered both to stay in custody. According to sources close to the legal team, Ahmed’s co-defendant Kishore has also suffered serious health complications, including an eardrum infection, pain in his heel causing him to limp, and high blood pressure. 

Ahmed’s death in custody is one instance of custodial abuse in a country that has regularly faced criticism for torture, extrajudicial executions, and other forms of custodial abuse, particularly by security and intelligence forces. Many journalists, writers, online commentators, artists, academics, and activists have faced threats and harassment, legal charges, and imprisonment in a climate in Bangladesh that has become increasingly inimical to free expression. In February 2021, more than 250 people protested Mushtaq and Kishore’s continued detention and called on the government to repeal the Digital Security Act. In another case filed under the same draconian law, photojournalist Shafiq Islam Kajol was charged under the Digital Security Act in Februaryafter having already spent nine months in detention before being released on bail in December 2020.