Bangladeshi writer Mushtaq Ahmed, who was arrested in May for allegedly posting “anti-government” content on social media, has died in jail, The New York Times reported on Friday.

Ahmed was among 11 people charged last year for spreading social media content, including cartoons, that alleged mismanagement and corruption in Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Senior Jail Superintendent of Kashimpur High Security Prison Md Gias Uddin said that 54-year-old Ahmed was on Thursday taken to Shaheed Tajuddin Medical College Hospital in Gazipur city after he fell ill. The doctors at the hospital declared him dead, he said.

Doctors at the prison said that Ahmed never complained about health problems. “He used to take pills for gastric and headache,” the jail superintendent added.

Nafeesur Rahman, a physician who is also Ahmed’s cousin, said he was present during the autopsy. “I have not found any injury mark anywhere on his body,” Rahman said. He added that Ahmed’s heart was found to be enlarged and that his blood pressure was very low when he lost consciousness.

The writer was arrested under the country’s Digital Security Act that gives the government powers to search, fine and arrest anyone who breaches its provisions, including violating “the solidarity, financial activities, security, defense, religious values or public discipline of the country.”

Critics say the provisions of Act are vague and allege that the law is used to stifle dissent. According to a report by the Asian Human Rights Commission, 138 people, including journalists, students and political activists, were arrested last year for criticising the government.

Ahmed was arrested by the Rapid Action Battalion, an elite anti-crime and anti-terrorism unit of the Bangladesh Police, according to the Dhaka Tribune. He was denied bail six times.

Rights organisations have demanded an investigation into the writer’s death and called for repealing the Digital Security Act. Aliya Iftikhar, a senior Asia researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists, called Ahmed’s death “a devastating and unconscionable loss”.

Mizanur Rahman, former chairperson of Bangladesh’s National Human Rights Commission, said the Digital Security Act was being used to stifle free speech in the country. “We all have to understand that criticising the government is not a seditious offence at all,” Mizanur Rahman said. “Mushtaq Ahmed was not found guilty – he was in jail for nine months only based on allegations of criticising the government, and his death in jail is totally unacceptable.”

Ahmed, in one of his posts on Facebook before his arrest, had compared the country’s health minister to a cockroach. “When a society laments the loss of an economy more than the loss of human life, it doesn’t need a virus, it’s already sick,” he had written in another post.

The writer was arrested along with cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore, who is still behind bars. After the last court hearing on Tuesday, Kishore’s brother had alleged that the cartoonist was tortured in jail.

“When my brother Kishore was produced before the court on February 23, I was present there,” Ahsan Kabir, Kishore’s brother, said in a telephone interview to The New York Times. “Kishore told me that he had been tortured between May 2 and May 6.”

Mushtaq Ahmed used to live with his wife Lipa Akhter and elderly parents in Lalmatia, Santhal Pargana district. He used to write under the pen name of Michael Kumir Thakur. He had published Kumir Chasher Diary in November 2018 and was working on another book.

At least 35 injured as police, protestors clash

Ahmed’s death sparked protests in Dhaka and 35 people were injured in a clash between the protestors and the police on Friday, according to Dhaka Tribune. The police also reportedly arrested seven people from the spot.

The incident took place when the protestors brought out a torchlight procession at the University of Dhaka. A Facebook page called “Fight For Rights,” which livestreamed the vigil, showed that the police intervened as the demonstrators started to head towards the Shahbagh intersection, a major transport hub.

The clash broke out after the police blocked the agitators and detained a few of them. The police also lobbed tear gases.

Torch procession protest in Dhaka. (Credit: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)

Deputy Commissioner of Dhaka Metropolitan Police (Ramna Zone) Sajjadur Rahman claimed that the police showed utmost patience in tackling the situation. “The protestors were marching towards Shahbagh and we tried to disperse them,” he said. “But they carried out an attack and threw brickbats at us. Around 14 policemen, including me, sustained injuries in the incident.”

However, Najifa Jannat, a spokesperson of the protestors, alleged the police baton-charged them, leading to the scuffle.