During a recent visit to Bangladesh to revisit my years there as a student, a colleague suggested I meet Sultana Kamal, much admired for decades of work on justice as a human rights defender.
But Kamal was not making many public appearances, because of threats from militants.
The story that emerged is a tale of authorities who, while attempting to appease some hardline religious groups, ended up compromising basic human rights principles.
In May, prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s government, which has long claimed a commitment to secularism, caved to the extremist group Hefazat-e Islami’s demands to remove a statue representing “Lady Justice” in front of the Supreme Court in Dhaka because it was deemed to be an un-Islamic religious object.
On May 28, Kamal argued during a television debate that by this logic no mosques should be permitted on the court premises. That prompted the Hefazat spokesman to call for Kamal’s arrest, and threaten that if she came out on the streets they “would break every bone in her body.” Kamal has said that after the threat was made, abusive postings appeared on Facebook, including doctored images of her being lynched.
While Kamal has since received police protection, the government has yet to publicly condemn the threats. On June 18, a lawyer served legal notice seeking her arrest “for hurting religious sentiments of the Muslim majority in the country;” however, Kamal has not been arrested.
These threats and claims of hurt sentiments are not new. They follow several lethal attacks by extremist groups on bloggers and activists for promoting secularism. Rather than condemn the attacks and arrest those responsible, officials responded by warning that “hurting religious sentiments is a crime.”
All this is happening against a background of increasing attacks on free speech by the state. Over the past two years, the government has cracked down on media and civil society.
The authorities restored “Lady Justice” to another part of the Supreme Court complex. But Bangladesh is on a dangerous course. The government needs to do much more to protect rights activists like Kamal and promote an environment where they can carry out their work free from threats and attacks. Appeasing religious extremists and silencing dissent will only lead to more violence.