What now for detained cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore as allegations of mistreatment and torture surface and his co-accused, the writer Mushtaq Ahmed is reported DOA at a hospital outside Dhaka?
UPDATE – FEBRUARY 28 2021: according to local press and confirmed by Kishore’s lawyer, a Dhaka magistrate has rejected a “remand prayer” (in essence, an effort by the police to interrogate the cartoonist once again) and his seventh bail request will be heard in the High Court tomorrow, March 1st. Meanwhile an official application has been made to open an investigation into Kishore’s physical mistreatment and allegations of torture. Protests over the death of Mushtaq Ahmed have continued over the last forty-eight hours, prompting severe counter-measures from police, and the heads of thirteen diplomatic missions have written to Bangladesh’s government voicing their grave concern.
Readers of this website over the past year will know that Ahmed Kabir Kishore, the winner of our Robert Russell Courage in Cartooning Award, has been languishing in jail since May 2020 when his cartoons about the Bangladeshi government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic led to his arrest under the Digital Security Act, a law widely and very recently criticised by Article 19, Committee to Protect Journalists, and Human Rights Watch Asia experts as an unjust, vague and overly broad law that grants Bangladesh’s government latitude to “essentially arrest anyone they want based on any online activity”.
Kishore was among eleven co-accused arrested last year. The ten months since have entailed a convoluted saga that at times has strained the limits of credibility in its detail. But of all those involved in the amorphous and poorly-articulated case the state proposes against the group, the two most egregiously mistreated have been Kishore and writer Mushtaq Ahmed. Both were seized by the notorious Rapid Action Battalion shock-troopers, both put in a maximum security facility, both denied bail six times while others were set free amid the oncoming pandemic and neither were ever out of the frame as eight others named in the case were, albeit briefly.
According to local press both men were visibly underweight earlier this month. On February 23rd Kishore made a brief appearance at a magistrate court hearing and while there passed a note to a lawyer, who then passed them to his family. We have heard directly from Kishore’s brother Ahsan Kabir and his defence barrister Jyotirmoy Barua. For some time the Kabir family had warned that they feared he was being tortured during his time in custody but this past week offered their first opportunity to get any detail. They have reported a shocking and extensive deterioration in his physical health.
He is an insulin dependent diabetic and we had long expected he would not fare well in custody while unable to confidently and freely take adequate injections. But the reported issues with his eyesight and infected wounds in his ears and on his left leg as well as loss of weight cannot be easily explained merely by insulin rationing. Indeed Kishore has put in writing the allegation that he is a victim of physical abuse and offered descriptions from memory of the two police officers he alleges are responsible.
While weighing the ramifications of these developments news broke that Mushtaq Ahmed perished on the evening of February 25th. The official line is that he simply collapsed in his cell at the Kashimpur jail and was dead on arrival at the hospital in Gazipur. CPJ has the fullest account at this early stage but it is safe to say that explanations of Ahmed’s cause of death will not be taken at face value by most observers unless coming from an impartial source.
From the outset we have expressed deep concerns about Ahmed Kabir Kishore’s welfare, sentiments that were echoed by a host of organisations and experts through the course of last year. But we are now quite convinced that the cartoonist is in imminent danger of death. His immediate release is absolutely essential.
As CPJ, HRW and other leading freedom of expression organisations take note of what has occurred we expect a critical mass of support to coalesce behind Ahmed Kabir Kishore. The only question is whether Bangladesh’s government, police and judiciary will at last do the decent and humane thing and drop the entire case against him or through their inaction make tacit admission that they are content to risk the death of a cartoonist, a citizen who simply had the temerity to post some drawings on Facebook.