Bangladesh Cartoonist Arrested Under Digital Security Act Gets Bail for 6 Months

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Dhaka
2021-03-03
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Bangladesh Cartoonist Arrested Under Digital Security Act Gets Bail for 6 Months Police block civil society members and activists protesting the Digital Security Act from marching toward the prime minister’s office in Dhaka, March 3, 2021.
[Focus Bangla]

A Bangladeshi court granted bail Wednesday to cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore who has been tortured during 10 months in custody under the country’s Digital Security Act, his lawyer said.

Kishore was granted a six-month bail on his seventh attempt to be freed from jail but he will not walk free for a few more days, the attorney said.

The cartoonist was arrested in May along with 53-year-old writer Mushtaq Ahmed, whose death in custody last week prompted days of protest at home and an international outcry over the repression of free speech in Bangladesh. A report on the cause of Ahmed’s death will be issued on Thursday, the home minister told reporters Wednesday.

“One [of the reasons for bail] was Kishore’s health, while the other was that two others accused in the same case are out on bail,” Deputy Attorney-General Sarwar Hossain said.

Ahmed’s death in custody on Feb. 25 angered the international community. Many groups such as PEN America, Cartoonists Rights Network International, and the Committee to Protect Journalists called for the ailing Kishore to be freed.

Kishore’s lawyer, Jyotirmoy Barua, said he had filed bail applications in several courts since the cartoonist and Ahmed were arrested.

“Different courts earlier rejected the bail petitions filed by Ahmed and Kishore six times and finally the High Court has granted our plea today,” Barua told BenarNews.

“The court accepted our plea for bail and now there is no bar to set him free, as he is not an accused in any other case,” Barua said, adding that the procedure to convey the bail order to prison authorities takes a few days.

Kishore, who is diabetic, had reported abuse by prison guards, according to Barua and the advocacy group Cartoonists Rights Network International.

“We told the court that Kishore was mercilessly tortured by law enforcers while in custody. He sustained injuries to his ears, left leg and he cannot walk properly due to the torture. Now he is critically ill, as his ear got badly infected,” the lawyer said.

Separately, an investigation into Ahmed’s death by corrections authorities concluded there was no negligence on their part, The Daily Star, a local publication, reported on Wednesday. It cited Brig. Gen. Md. Mominur Rahman Mamun, the inspector general of prisons.

The report on the investigation has been submitted to the Ministry of Home Affairs, Rahman Mamun said.

Bangladesh is only ‘partly free’

After Ahmed’s death, international rights groups and foreign envoys voiced grave concern about the Digital Security Act (DSA) being used to repress free speech and target those who criticize the Awami League government.

Their concern was shared by United States-based democracy research NGO Freedom House, which on Wednesday released its annual “Freedom in the World” report.

Bangladesh is still classified as “partly free,” according to Freedom House, which tracked developments in 2020.

“Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League has consolidated political power through sustained harassment of the opposition and those perceived to be allied with it, as well as of critical media and voices in civil society,” the report said.

For instance, Ahmed had published an article on Facebook criticizing the shortage of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers amid the coronavirus pandemic, PEN America and Human Rights Watch had said.

Ahmed had also shared Kishore’s cartoons about alleged corruption in the government response to the pandemic.

They were arrested under the act “on charges of spreading anti-government remarks and rumors regarding the coronavirus situation and various law enforcement agencies,” on social media, police said last May.

The DSA allows police to arrest people without a warrant. It also punishes those who produce or distribute content that “hurts religious sentiments or religious values” or “destroys communal harmony, or creates unrest or disorder” with up to 10 years in prison.

Last year, at least 142 people faced cases under the law, which was passed by the ruling Awami League government in October 2018, according to rights group Odhikar.

Most of the cases were filed by the law enforcement agencies or the leaders of the ruling party and their front organization, Odhikar said.

‘Bail for six months is not enough’

Anger over Ahmed’s death and Kishore’s alleged torture spilled onto the streets of Dhaka for a sixth straight day Wednesday, as protesters demanded that the government withdraw the case against Kishore and scrap the Digital Security Act.

Protesters formed a human-chain in front of the National Press Club, and began marching toward Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s office.

Police thwarted this attempt by setting up barricades – much like they did earlier this week – to prevent protesters from surrounding government buildings.

“The right to expression is guaranteed by our constitution. It cannot be curtailed by enacting a law. We are here to reestablish this right and protest the death of writer Mushtaq,” Badiul Alam Majumdar, of the citizens group Sushasoner Jonno Nagorik, told BenarNews.

“The news of cartoonist Kishore’s bail is good, but an interim bail for six months is not enough. The government must withdraw the case filed against him under the Digital Security Act.”

Meanwhile, Information Minister Hasan Mahmud defended the law.

“The [act] is meant to provide digital security to the people of the country… to give digital security to someone whose character is assassinated,” Mahmud said.

“The death of writer Mushtaq Ahmed is unfortunate. I am also hurt by this incident. However, the manner in which attempts are being made to create a situation over his death is even more unfortunate.”

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