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I. Summary

An unprecedented climate of fear now pervades Bangladesh’s minority Ahmadiyya community, a heterodox religious group that considers itself part of the larger Muslim world. Ahmadis have been the target of deadly violence and organized and widespread intimidation. Extremist Muslim groups have organized mass political rallies calling for an official declaration that Ahmadis are not Muslims and for a ban on their publications and missionary activities. Ahmadiyya mosques have been attacked, individuals have been beaten up or killed, and others have been denied access to schools and sources of livelihood. While the police have generally provided protection to Ahmadis against mob violence, the current Bangladeshi government has aligned itself politically with groups and individuals inciting violence against Ahmadis.

Throughout 2004 and into 2005, the Khatme Nabuwat (K.N.), an umbrella organization of Islamist groups dedicated to the preservation of “the finality of the prophethood” of Mohammad, has threatened the Ahmadiyya community with attacks on their mosques and campaigned for Ahmadis to be declared non-Muslim. The K.N. enjoys links to the governing Bangladesh National Party (BNP) through the BNP’s coalition partners, the Jama’at-e-Islami (J.I.) and the Islami Okye Jote (IOJ).

One of the worst attacks on Ahmadis took place on April 17, 2005 when a mob led by the K.N. attacked members of the Ahmadiyya community, injuring at least twenty-five people. The attack took place in Joytidrianagar, a remote village in the southwestern Satkhira district. Witnesses reported that thousands of K.N. members brandishing sticks, machetes, and darts started marching towards the Sundarban Bazar. The K.N. activists sought to place a signboard on the Ahmadi mosque in the area which stated: “This is a place of worship for Kadianis; no Muslim should mistake it for a mosque.” As the K.N. activists reached the Ahmadiyya mosque at Sundarban Bazar, the Ahmadis, led by their chief missionary in Bangladesh, tried to prevent the incident from taking place. Incensed at the resistance, K.N. activists started throwing stones at them and injured dozens of people, some seriously, including six women. The police, instead of preventing the incident from occurring, sought to contain the situation by taking possession of the sign-board and hanging it themselves on the Ahmadi mosque.

Immediately afterwards, K.N. activists went on a rampage, looting nearby Ahmadi homes and injuring many Ahmadis in the process, who were beaten with sticks and sustained serious injuries. During the attack and for three days afterwards, alleged K.N. activists looted at least ten Ahmadi houses at Sundarban Bazar in the village.

Similarly, on October 29, 2004, when a mob of at least three hundred linked to the K.N. launched an attack on an Ahmadi mosque in Brahmanbaria, seventy-five kilometers northeast of Dhaka. The axe-wielding mob pelted Ahmadi worshippers with stones as they congregated to offer Friday prayers. Subsequently, the mob broke down the doors of the mosque with axes and attacked the worshippers with the same weapons. Eleven Ahmadis were seriously injured in the attack. Underlining the government’s hostility to Ahmadis, no prosecutions of these high profile attacks have taken place.

While Ahmadis, followers of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, a 19th century religious leader who claimed to be a prophet and sought the renewal of Islam, have faced persecution and ostracism in many countries since the group’s founding in 1889, it is only recently that the government of Bangladesh has taken a direct part in curbing the religious freedom of members of the Ahmadiyya community. The most tangible expression of governmental hostility towards Ahmadis came on January 8, 2004, when the Bangladeshi government banned all Ahmadiyya publications.

The ban on publications was enacted in response to an upsurge in anti-Ahmadi protests and violence in late 2003 incited by Islamist groups. These groups, including at least one of the partners in the government’s ruling coalition, the Islamic Okye Jote, demanded that the Bangladeshi government declare the Ahmadis to be non-Muslim. Such a declaration would have a profoundly detrimental effect on Ahmadis in Bangladesh, as it has in Pakistan, as also described in this report. Ahmadis would have reasonable fears that institutionalized discrimination and violence would become the norm. The ongoing legal and extra-legal persecution of Ahmadis in Pakistan provides a chilling precedent.

Since the government ban on Ahmadiyya publications was introduced, anti-Ahmadi activities have continued and intensified across Bangladesh. These incidents have included massive anti-Ahmadi rallies, threats against members of the group, attacks on mosques, the refusal to allow Ahmadi children to go to school, and the confiscation of Ahmadiyya publications.

At worst, Bangladeshi officials have themselves supported discrimination against Ahmadis, or stood by idly while Ahmadi mosques were attacked. Most often, the official response has been based not on human rights principles (including the equality of all citizens and freedom of all to profess the religion of their choice), but on political calculations of risk and benefit, a sliding scale that, depending on the circumstances, has included everything from denunciations of anti-Ahmadi discrimination to adoptions of policies that are themselves discriminatory, to acquiescence in acts of violence.

On December 21, 2004, Bangladesh's High Court temporarily suspended the January 8 order banning Ahmadiyya publications in response to a legal challenge launched by human rights groups in the country. While the stay remained in effect at this writing, the ultimate disposition of the case remained unclear.

Ahmadis fear that the literature ban will be followed by a ban on the practice and expression of their religion, and other assaults on their identity. The gradual shift of Bangladesh away from its secular roots, including the increasing Islamization of Bangladeshi politics and society, gives some credence to these fears.

Given the alarmingly high levels of communal violence in Bangladesh directed against other minorities, including Hindus and indigenous peoples, further government concessions to extremist religious demands would set a particularly dangerous precedent. In the overheated, sectarian atmosphere of contemporary Bangladesh, with the ruling government more religiously intolerant than any government since the country’s founding, Ahmadis fear that even a tiny spark could unleash a serious and perhaps uncontrollable wave of violence against members of their community.

Why are Ahmadis facing such persecution? The Ahmadiyya are a relatively small religious group that considers itself to be part of the larger Muslim community. However, for doctrinal reasons, particularly their heterodox beliefs (see background section below), many Muslims consider Ahmadis to be non-Muslims. Ahmadis are seen by many of their detractors in the Muslim world, and especially in South Asia, as a British creation of 19th century colonial India, dedicated to subverting one of tenets of Islam—the “finality of the prophethood of Mohammed.” They make easy targets in times of religious and political insecurity. For those pursuing populist political goals, such as Islamist and conservative parties in Bangladesh, raising the bogey of Ahmadi subversion and persecuting them, ostensibly in order to preserve the faith, provides a fast track to political power.

The current national government has taken an increasingly populist stance on religion, pandering to groups that want to change Bangladesh from an officially secular state to an Islamic republic. A four-party coalition led by the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) holds a slender majority of the popular vote over its bitter secular opponent, the Awami League.

Both junior coalition partners, the J.I. and the IOJ, have been linked to violent attacks connected to religious issues. In February 2001, two top leaders of the IOJ, Maulana Azizul Haq and Maulana Fazlul Haq Amini, were arrested in connection with the lynching of a policeman in violence that followed a ruling by the Bangladesh High Court banning the use of fatwas (religious edicts). The IOJ leaders allegedly also threatened the two judges who banned the issuance of fatwas. In October 2003, a J.I. leader in Jessore, Maulana Aminur Rahman, led a mob attack in which local Ahmadiyyah leader Mohammed Shah Alam was killed.

The J.I. maintains that Ahmadis are non-Muslim, though it has been silent on the literature ban, apparently in order to present itself as a moderate religious force to the West (in Pakistan the J.I. is part of the Islamist Muttahida Majlis-eAmal (MMA) coalition that holds power in the country’s strategically important North West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan). Openly anti-Ahmadiyya actors have found a more vocal platform in the IOJ, which is using the Ahmadiyya issue as a vehicle through which to attract public attention and win more votes and power in the government.

The J.I.-IOJ alliance is essential to the BNP’s continued hold on power. As a result, the J.I. has been given two key ministries in the Bangladeshi government, the Ministry of Social Welfare and the Ministry of Industries. The Social Welfare Ministry governs nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Not surprisingly, the J.I. has been vocal against NGOs because they are seen to empower women and raise awareness of women’s rights and human rights more generally. Further, NGOs are viewed as a powerful secular force in Bangladesh, as the international community has over the years funneled enormous sums of aid through NGOs to deliver key services and sidestep government corruption.

The BNP at times has sought to please its coalition partners J.I. and IOJ and some of its own members by implementing discriminatory policies—such as the ban on Ahmadiyya publications—and by turning a blind eye to acts of violence and intimidation against minorities such as Ahmadis, Hindus, Christians, and others. While the BNP claims it is not a communal party and that it is not leading or instigating attacks on minorities, it has failed to take any serious action against those who carry out attacks or incite violence. The government’s capitulation to certain anti-Ahmadi demands, moreover, belies its assertions that if there are any religious fundamentalist groups in Bangladesh they have little power.

This report details acts of intimidation, harassment, and violence against Ahmadis since October 2003. The government ban on Ahmadiyya publications and the failure of officials to respond adequately to the attacks constitute violations of the fundamental rights of members of the Ahmadiyya community. Such acts and omissions violate their right to freedom of religion under the Bangladeshi Constitution, and their rights to freedom of religion and expression as well as their right to be free from religious discrimination under international human rights law, notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bangladesh is party. The government further has an obligation under international law to investigate effectively abuses against Ahmadis and to prosecute those responsible. Victims of such abuses must be ensured an effective remedy.

The government of Bangladesh must act decisively to respect the rights and dignity of members of the Ahmadiyya Community. Human Rights Watch calls upon the government of Bangladesh to:

  • Immediately rescind the ban on all Ahmadiyya publications.
  • Investigate thoroughly and impartially attacks on members of the Ahmadiyya community, as well as other religious minorities, and prosecute the perpetrators and sponsors of such attacks.
  • Ensure that the police register and investigate all cases of communal violence regardless of the religious background of the victim.
  • Ensure that these investigations address the conduct of the local leadership and members of all political parties and party leaders who may have incited, took part in, or were complicit in the planning or execution of religion-motivated attacks.
  • Allow unfettered access to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion in order that she may visit Bangladesh on terms consistent with her mandate with specific reference to the persecution of members of the Ahmadiyya community. Immediately provide the Rapporteur with specific dates when she may undertake the visit.
  • Take appropriate measures to combat religious discrimination and intolerance in public schools and madrassas.

Note on methodology

This report is based on Human Rights Watch research in Bangladesh in August 2004 and interviews conducted and an earlier text written by HLS Advocates for Human Rights/Harvard Human Rights Program in March 2004. The HLS Advocates for Human Rights/Harvard Human Rights Program text has been reviewed and authenticated by Human Rights Watch, including through follow-up interviews in Bangladesh. This report covers the period from October 2003 to April 2005. Due to limitations described below, this report does not purport to provide a comprehensive list of cases of anti-Ahmadi violence that occurred during this period. Indeed, it could not be, given the routine intimidation and harassment that takes place at the village level, which goes unaddressed by the authorities, and which leads many victims to remain silent for fear of retaliation. In addition, much of Bangladesh is inaccessible to outside researchers and Human Rights Watch was not able to visit all areas where incidents are believed to have taken place.

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