New protests over writer's death in Bangladesh jail

Activists hold placards during a demonstration following the death of writer Mushtaq Ahmed in Dhaka, on Feb 27, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

DHAKA (AFP) - Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Saturday (Feb 27) shrugged off criticism of her government's rights record as hundreds marched in a second day of protests over the death of a prominent writer in prison.

Demonstrators marched at Dhaka University chanting slogans condemning the government's treatment of dissident Mushtaq Ahmed as well as other journalists and activists.

Another protest was staged at the National Press Club, while dozens of people carried a symbolic coffin to Ms Hasina's office demanding the scrapping of the Digital Security Act (DSA) under which Ahmed was detained last May.

The protests followed clashes between police and security forces in the capital on Friday night.

Police said six people were arrested while activists said at least 30 were injured.

'Custodial murder'

The wide-ranging DSA has been used to crack down on dissent since it was enacted in 2018.

Speaking Saturday at a rare press conference to mark a UN recommendation that Bangladesh be reclassified as a "developing" economy, Prime Minister Hasina - who has been in office for 12 years - brushed aside international concerns over the law and Ahmed's death.

"No death is desired. It is also not desired that unrest will be created," she said.

"Whether the law has been misused or not depends on your point of view. I think the law is taking its own course and will do so. If someone does not commit a crime, he will not be punished in a trial."

Ahmed collapsed and died at Kashimpur High Security Prison late Thursday.

The 53-year-old, a crocodile farmer and a writer known for his satirical style, was charged with spreading rumours and conducting "anti-state activities" after criticising the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic on Facebook.

Protesters have said his death was a "custodial murder" after he was denied bail six times in 10 months.

Authorities say they have ordered a committee to investigate whether there was negligence by jail officials.

But ambassadors from 13 countries, including the United States, France, Britain, Canada and Germany, have expressed "grave concern" over the case.

"We call on the government of Bangladesh to conduct a swift, transparent and independent inquiry into the full circumstances of Mr Mushtaq Ahmed's death," the envoys said in a statement released late Friday.

They said their countries would pursue "wider concerns about the provisions and implementation of the DSA, as well as questions about its compatibility with Bangladesh's obligations under international human rights laws and standards."

Rights groups have also raised concerns about the case and the detention of Kabir Kishore, a cartoonist who was arrested at the same time as Ahmed.

PEN America said authorities should drop charges against Kishore, while the US-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists said he had passed a note to his brother during a hearing this week stating that he had been subjected to severe physical abuse in custody.

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