After his death, prison authorities described Mushtaq as an honest and decent person. That this admission came after his death shows how nobody’s life in Bangladesh is more at risk than those of Mushtaq’s ilk because nobody in Bangladesh feels more threatened by them than the prime minister and her men.
Even though Bangladeshi government officials, including the prime minister, often claim the judiciary to be independent, the reality is that the Awami League government exerts its unwarranted influence at every level of the judicial hierarchy. Recent court verdicts in cases filed under the notorious Digital Security Act show that the judiciary has lost its ability to maintain any semblance of independence. That the court granted bail to Cartoonist Kishore, who was denied bail in seven previous attempts, only in the aftermath of writer Mushtaq Ahmed’s death in police custody after he was denied bail for six consecutive times, and because of the national and international uproar and pressure the government faces to repeal the Digital Security Act and drop charges against those arrested under the act, demonstrates how both the government and the judiciary violate people’s right to freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial enshrined in Bangladesh’s constitution.
After his death, prison authorities described Mushtaq as an honest and decent person. That this admission came after his death shows how nobody’s life in Bangladesh is more at risk than those of Mushtaq’s ilk because nobody in Bangladesh feels more threatened by them than the prime minister and her men. In her latest press conference, prime minister Sheikh Hasina claimed that the government cannot be held responsible if someone dies in jail. In the past, she claimed that the government cannot offer protection to someone accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Recently, the police sought permission from the court to take control of the social media accounts of those arrested or currently on bail under the Digital Security Act. Those who work in mainstream media are also bearing the brunt of the repression. 71.7% of them want to give up journalism; 42.09% are suffering from depression.
The government portrays any criticism of its authoritarian rule as subversive acts against the state and the spirit of the liberation war. It exploits, inter alia, the Digital Security Act to silence its critics, imprison them, maim them physically and psychologically. Since 2014, the election commission and other constitutional institutions serve not the people but the ruling party. Rampant vote-rigging has led the electoral system to collapse. Voters are no longer required to cast their vote on election day; on the night before, ruling party members, under election officials’ guidance, stuff ballot boxes with ballot papers. The number of votes cast often exceeds the number of total voters in a constituency. Many non-political celebrities have jumped on this bandwagon of running in farcical elections and secured seats in the national parliament — from movie stars to the national Cricket team captain.
This authoritarian status-quo needs to change. People should regain access to their constitutional right to vote, to speak out and protest against oppression. They don’t have to find their vote already cast on an election day; they don’t have to find themselves in a torture dungeon because they speak truth to power. The government will not voluntarily give back the constitutional rights it took away from us. To regain these rights, if not everyone, enough of us need to speak out, demand them vociferously. When Kishore met Mushtaq in prison, he told Kishore not to be depressed, that they had committed no crime, and to stand straight with a smile. Mushtaq showed the way; now, it is our turn to follow suit.