As Protests Sharpen Along Religious Lines, Government Should Not Curtail Free Speech
(New York) – The Bangladesh authorities should immediately drop charges against and release four bloggers and a newspaper editor arrested this month, Human Rights Watch said today. All five are facing criminal charges solely related to the peaceful exercise of their right to free speech.
Human Rights Watch said the government should stop targeting individuals and media publishing stories the government deems objectionable and reaffirm its commitment to freedom of expression, a principle which the governing Awami League has long claimed to champion.
“By targeting peaceful critics in the media and blogosphere and promising more arrests, the government is abandoning any serious claim that it is committed to free speech,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Bangladeshis should have the right to peacefully express their views, and the state should address these demands through the rule of law instead of embarking on politically motivated arrests.”
Bangladesh has been gripped by large-scale protests, political unrest, and violence since the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), a court set up to prosecute those responsible for atrocities committed during the country’s 1971 war of independence, sentenced a Jamaat-e-Islami party leader, Abdul Qader Mollah, to life in prison instead of capital punishment on February 5, 2013.
Hundreds of thousands throughout Bangladesh took to the streets in peaceful protests to demand that Mollah be hanged. The situation took a more violent turn after the ICT, on February 28, sentenced vice-president of the Jamaat party Delwar Hossain Sayedee to death by hanging after finding him guilty of war crimes. Following this verdict, supporters of the Jamaat party took to the streets in protest, leading to clashes between them, the Shahbagh protesters, and security forces attempting to control the protests. At least 90 people have died, most of them in police firing according to media and human rights groups.
While the “Shahbagh Movement” is campaigning for the death penalty for the accused, supporters of the Jamaat party are protesting the trial process and the rulings of the tribunal, claiming political bias.
Increasingly, the protests appear to have sharpened along religious lines, with some Islamist clerics demanding a blasphemy law and with others in the Shahbagh movement publishing statements supporting atheist principles, largely through blogs and other electronic media. In response, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina reaffirmed that Bangladesh is a secular state.
However, the criminal justice authorities also cracked down on government critics in the media, including social media. Following the arrests of the bloggers, the government made clear that the restrictions and arrests will continue. The Home Minister announced that he had a list of seven other “atheist bloggers” who would be arrested soon. The Law Minister announced that the government intended to increase its control over social media, blogs, and online news websites.
On April 2 and 3, police arrested four bloggers, Subrata Adhikari Shuvo, Mashiur Rahman Biplob, Rasel Parvez, and Asif Mohiuddin, who had posted articles either critical of the government’s attempts to appease the Islamist demands or that said that the government had failed to address the concerns of minority religions. Police described the four as “known atheists and naturalists” who wrote derogatory things about the Prophet, and said the four would face charges of “instigating negative elements against Islam to create anarchy.”
“These bloggers can only be called political prisoners, since they are in jail for peacefully expressing their views,” Adams said. “Freedom of religion also includes the freedom not to believe in a religion and to make those views known. For a government that has always presented itself as liberal and secular this is a huge retreat from the values it claims to uphold.”
In a further attack on free speech, on April 11 the police arrested Mahmdur Rahman, the editor of an opposition news outlet, Amar Desh. Rahman was subsequently charged with sedition and unlawful publication of a hacked conversation between the ICT judges and an external consultant. The conversations exposed political interference with the trials. The conversations were originally published by The Economist and later republished in Bangladesh by Amar Desh and other news organizations and websites. The Shahbagh protesters had earlier demanded Rahman’s arrest for critical reports about their movement.
The state minister for home affairs, speaking at a press conference, said that Rahman has “hurt Muslim religious sentiments.” Rahman had previously been arrested in 2010 on defamation charges but was later released and the charges were dropped. Rahman alleged torture and ill-treatment while in custody.
On April 14, the offices of another opposition newspaper, Daily Sangram, were raided by the police. The editor, Mohamed Abul Asad, has subsequently been charged for printing and publishing copies of Amar Desh after authorities had shut down Amar Desh after Rahman’s arrest.
Rahman’s mother, who is the Acting Chairman ofAmar Desh, has also been charged along with over a dozen others in the same case.
Earlier, on February 16, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission had shut down the Sonar Bangla blog, known to be operated by Jamaat activists, for spreading “hate speech and causing communal tension.” This came after a pro-Shahbagh blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was killed a day earlier by unknown assailants suspected to be pro-Jamaat.
“The arrest of a newspaper editor and shuttering his paper, which printed material that was terribly embarrassing to the government – so embarrassing that the chairman of the court resigned – suggests that the purpose of the arrests is to silence those who are critical of the way the war crimes trials have been carried out,” said Adams. “Rather than call for new trials that would have full credibility and ensure that any convictions are sound, the government has resorted to authoritarian tactics and a major crackdown on critics.”