84 bloggers on the death list

Bangladesh was founded as a secular state – but the former regime established Islam as the state religion. This doesn’t tally, and the double ledger has resulted in a tug-of-war that leads ultimately to terror and political violence. The ones to pay the highest price are those who seek to keep the social discourse and the free debate alive, writes Ratan Kumar Samadder, Guest Writer of the Bergen City of Refuge.
December 17 2015 Text: Ratan Kumar Samadder

Bangladesh is a South Asian country with more than 160 million people. 90% of the population is Muslim, approximately 8% are Hindu, while Christians, Buddhists, and others comprise 2%. The constitution of Bangladesh guarantees both a secular and an Islamic nation. In 2010 the Bangladesh Supreme Court namely restored secularism in the constitution, which had been deleted in 1977 by a Military ruler named Ziaur Rahman. But Islam as the state religion has not been deleted from the constitution; it was incorporated in 1988 by the then military ruler H. M. Ershad. The constitution also guarantees both the freedom of speech and expression and the freedom of the press, albeit with some ifs and buts. The constitution states: “Subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to an offence– (a) the right of every citizen to freedom of speech and expression; and (b) freedom of the press are guaranteed.”(1)

Time and again the Government of the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh has limited the freedom of expression or the freedom of the press by laws, and has at times tried to limit it by unlawful harassments of journalists and/or newspapers. Every year many journalists are unlawfully tortured, many face trials, and many are imprisoned. In 2013 the government passed a new law, the Information & Communication Technology (Amendment) Act, which has a very controversial section. In section 57 of the ICT (Amendment) Act-2013 it states: “If any person deliberately publishes or transmits or causes to be published or transmitted in the website or in any other electronic form any material which is false and obscene and if anyone sees, hears, or reads it having regard to all relevant circumstances, it’s effect is such as to influence the reader to become dishonest or corrupt, or causes to deteriorate or creates the possibility to deteriorate law and order, prejudice the image of the state or person or causes to hurt or may hurt religious belief or instigate against any person or organization, then this activity will be regarded as an offence.” For this offence one cannot get out on bail and it is punishable with a minimum of seven years to a maximum of fourteen years imprisonment or with a fine up to ten million BDT (USD 130,000). Since the enforcement of the law, it has been severely used against the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press, particularly for those who express their thoughts in social media such as blogs and on Facebook. Many bloggers and facebookers have been arrested and sent to prison with the charges of hurting religious sentiments, particularly Islam. Few have been arrested for criticizing the ruling party’s activities.

The worst part of the law is that the majority of Muslims are deliberately using this law to harass others, particularly people of other religions and atheists. In September 2015, an NGO director named Mohon Kumar Mondol was arrested on the charge of hurting religious sentiments in a Facebook update. He had just criticized the Saudi Government for the accident during the hajj pilgrimage. It is surprising that he was arrested less than an hour after the status was given. Similar arrests are very common in Bangladesh. A journalist named Manash Mukherjee was arrested for his writing on Facebook and for criticizing in a newspaper a minister’s activities to wipe out a renowned Hindu family in Faridpur, Bangladesh. But, after huge criticism on the social media such as Facebook and various blogs, he has been released on bail. Although he has been charged with an ICT offence (usually not bailable), he has been allowed to get out on bail. This indicates that the judiciary system is totally controlled by the Government. Similar kinds of arrests for exercising the freedom of speech are very common in Bangladesh.

The examples above show the general restrictions enforced by the authorities that the people of Bangladesh are facing concerning the freedom of speech. However, the most fearsome restrictions are those that bloggers and writers are facing in Bangladesh. In 2015 a total of five persons have been hacked to death by the Islamic terrorist organizations—among them four writers/bloggers and one publisher. Another two writers and a publisher have been attacked but they have survived. All these writers/bloggers and the publisher were murdered on the grounds that the Islamic terrorists deemed their writings to have hurt the religious sentiments of Muslims. In fact, as atheists the writers/bloggers favored secularism, human rights, women’s empowerment, and they sometimes criticized Islam, particularly Islamic fundamentalism, Islamic terrorism, and the filthiness of the Sharia law; they wrote scientific essays of which some contradicted Islamic teachings, and the publishers published books by atheists for business purposes even though they are not atheists themselves.

On the 26th of February 2015, Avijit Roy (42), a Bangladeshi-American writer and founder of the first Bengali secular blog site Mukto-Mona (free thinker), was hacked to death at Dhaka University Campus. He is the author of nine books—a few of them unique in Bengali literature. He came to Bangladesh to attend a month-long book fair on the occasion of publishing two new titles. His wife Bonya Ahmed was also nearly killed at the same time. She survived but lost her left thumb. Avijit Roy was one of the most prominent scientific writers in the Bengali language and he was a great international voice practicing the freedom of expression in Bangladesh. In 2013, when four bloggers had been arrested and sent to prison by the police, he stood up against it and built international support for their release. His death is a great loss to the freedom of speech and the freedom of expression for the Bangladeshi people.

Another writer, Washiqur Rahman Babu (27), was murdered on the street of Dhaka city on March 30 on his way to his office very close to his house. He was a secular blogger and a satirist of social injustice and religious bigotry. Rahman was not even on the list of the 84 atheist bloggers published by the fundamentalists of Bangladesh in 2013. Although he wrote in his own name, most of his fellow bloggers did not know his identity nor had they ever seen his photo. But the terrorists identified him anyhow and killed him. Two murderers were captured with machetes by a passer-by when they were fleeing after the murder. Both of them are madrasah students, who told the police that they feel proud to have killed Rahman; they do not know what he wrote or where he wrote but they had simply been ordered to carry out the murder by their superiors, which they did.

Also, a blogger and writer named Ananta Bijoy Das (32) was murdered in Sylhet on the 12th of May in 2015. He was likewise killed on the street close to his house on the way to his office. He was a moderator of the Mukto-Mona blog along with Avijit Roy and the author of three scientific books. Most of his blog entries are about evolutionary theory. After the death of Avijit Roy, Bijoy Das understood that he would also be killed by the Islamic terrorists so he tried to leave the country but failed.

The latest secular blogger to be murdered in Bangladesh is Niladri Chatterjee (27) who is also known as Niloy Nil. He was killed at his rented house on the 7th of August. On the 15th of May he posted on Facebook that he had noticed that some persons were following him, and that he had gone to the police for a general update but the police refused to listen. He also wrote that the police refused on the grounds that they would not be able to ensure his security. Instead they had advised him either to stop writing or to leave Bangladesh. Most of the Bangladeshi bloggers are not willing to go to the police because they fear harassment by them. Niladri Chatterjee was an active voice against the oppression by the Islamic fundamentalists of Hindu and other minorities. He was also active in participating physically in all kinds of demonstrations, for example, with the human rights movement and the women’s rights movement.

After the death of Niladri Chatterjee the police have been severely criticized in media at home and abroad and now they are granting some kind of security to those who apply for it. But bloggers can depend little on the police since, two days after the murder of Niladri Chaterjee, the Inspector General of the Police (IGP) of Bangladesh advised the bloggers not to cross the limit. Though he criticized the killing his speech almost legitimized the murders. Besides, it seems that the Government of Bangladesh has little concern over the killings of the secular bloggers. There are so many murders but Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is yet to say anything about them to media or elsewhere. Sajeeb Ahmed Wajed Joy, son of the Prime Minister, told Reuters that the killing of the bloggers is too sensitive an issue for his mother to speak about in public. Muhammad Zafar Iqbal, a popular writer and former professor of the Shahjalal Science and Technological University in Bangladesh, told media that Joy's statement seemed to give the impression that the murders would continue and that the Government would do nothing—say nothing. After this speech Mr. Iqbal was severely criticized by some members of the student’s wing of the ruling party, and radical Muslims sent letters to him to warn him to prepare himself for death. Now he has been assigned bodyguards for his safety. Moreover, most of the mainstream writers, fearing for their own lives, are reluctant to speak against the murders. Instead, like the IGP, some of them are criticizing bloggers for the content of their writings. Very few writers have participated in the movements demanding the arrest and trial of the murderers.

So, at this point almost all the bloggers fear to live in their own country. Most of the prominent bloggers have left Bangladesh with the help of various humanitarian organizations—few have left by their own capacity but there are still many left in the country. They are living in the utmost fear of being killed anytime and anywhere. Many have stopped writing altogether; many have deleted their posts, or blogs, or deactivated their Facebook IDs.

And on October 31 Faisal Arefin Deepan, the owner of a publishing house named ‘Jagriti Prokashoni,’ was murdered in his office. He had published two books by Avijit Roy, who was murdered in February. Another publisher of Avijit Roy’s book was also attacked on the same day along with two writers/bloggers but they survived, having procured huge injuries. The attacks on these publishers have of course changed the total scenario of the freedom of speech in Bangladesh. Earlier on, only secular writers/bloggers feared to be killed by the Islamic extremists, but now publishers are also fearing attack. So, most of the publishers are scared to publish books by secular writers. In February 2015, the office of a publishing house called ‘Rodela Prokashoni’ was also attacked by the extremists for publishing a translated book named 23 Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Muhammad originally written by Ali Dashti. The office of the publishing house had been closed and for two years it was banned from participating in the ‘Ekushey Book Fair.’ So, the future of the freedom of speech in Bangladesh remains dark. All the murders and attacks on the writers/bloggers and publishers have been acknowledged by the ‘Ansarullah Bangla Team,’ a banned terrorist organization of Islamic radicals, or by ‘Ansar Al Islam,’ the Indian Sub-Continent wing of Al-Qaeda.

The persecution of writers is not a new phenomenon in Bangladesh. Since Independence Bangladesh has been suffering from a lack of freedom of speech and writers have been persecuted for exercising this freedom. The first case in this regard was in 1974 when a poet named Daud Haider was exiled for writing a poem. Now he is living in Germany. Several times he tried to return to Bangladesh but could not. Taslima Nasreen, a famous writer and a feminist, needed to flee from the country in 1994 for her book Lajja, a book about the problems facing Hindu families living amongst radical Muslims. The book is banned in Bangladesh along with three other books published later in Kolkata, India. Ms. Nasreen is also currently living abroad and she has never been allowed to return to Bangladesh. Islamic extremists have demanded a death penalty for the writer and intellectual the late Professor Ahmad Sarif; they have attacked the house of the renowned poet late Shamsur Rahman in 1999; they have tried to assassinate the renowned writer late Humayun Azad on Dhaka University campus in 2003; they have in 2007 demanded a death penalty for Arifur Rahman, a cartoonist of a news magazine who faced trial and relocated to Norway afterwards with the help of ICORN; they have attacked Asif Mohiuddin, a secular blogger, in front of his office in Dhaka on January 15, 2013 (he later left Bangladesh and is now living in Germany); and they have killed Ahmed Rajib Haider, a secular blogger from Dhaka, on the 15th of February in 2013.

In 2013, immediately after the murder of the blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider by the Ansarullah Bangla Team, a few newspapers owned by radical Muslims deliberately and unethically published blog writings that contained a critique of some Quranic verses promoting violence. As Haider was a supporter of the ‘Shahbagh Movement’ (a spontaneous movement initiated by some bloggers to demand capital punishment for the war crimes in 1971), and as most of the convicted persons involved in war crime belong to a radical Islamic political party, there was a huge uprising of the radical Muslims against the ‘Shahbagh Movement’ as well as against the bloggers. An Islamic organization of madrasah teachers and students named Hefazot-e-Islam demanded a death penalty for all the secular bloggers (they used the term ‘atheist bloggers’). Attending an Islamic gathering, Allama Shah Ahmad Shafi, chief of the organization, provoked the Islamic radicals by saying that the killing of the atheist bloggers is the solemn duty of every Muslim. But he was neither arrested nor did he face any kind of trial for this type of provocative speech, instead the Government donated some valuable land to the madrasah he governed. In fact, the Government of Bangladesh tried to pacify him with some reward so that he and his organization would keep calm. This Islamic organization has thirteen demands on their list and almost all of them are primitive in nature.

During the uprising this Islamic organization handed over a list of eighty-four atheist bloggers to the Government and demanded a death penalty for all of them. In response the Government arrested four bloggers. They were sent to prison and a trial ensued. Three of them have left the country free on bail. The ICT (Amendment) Act-2013 is also a response from the Government to the demands of Hefazot-e-Islam. Now all the secular bloggers fear being killed by the radicals or being arrested on the grounds of violation of the ICT (Amendment) Act.

In Bangladesh there are some other facts that have made the secular bloggers vulnerable to persecution by the Islamic extremists. There are more than 50,000 madrasahs in Bangladesh over which the Government has no control at all. These madrasahs are called ‘Qawmi’ madrasahs and they follow their own syllabus, which includes only Islamic education and jihadism. Every year thousands of children are getting this education and mentally they are becoming jihadists. The Government has several times tried to take control over this kind of education but has failed. Moreover, due to protests organized by the Islamic extremists the Government of Bangladesh was bound to cancel the drafted women’s development policy that entailed equal rights to property. They also demand the cancellation of the present education policy although the policy does not cover the ‘Qawmi’ madrasahs and there is already religious education in the policy.

During its emergence as an independent country Bangladesh was a secular country because the liberation movement was secular in nature and at the root of the movement was the Bengali Language Movement of 1948 and 1952, which also was secular in nature. But, immediately after Independence the country has gradually moved backwards and now there is very little scope to exercise the freedom of speech. It is now quite normal for most of the countries to have some religious and/or ethnic radical/extremist organizations and it is also normal that these try to stop people from exercising their freedom of speech/expression. These organizations must be successfully curtailed by the Government, but sadly, Bangladesh has failed to tackle them and there is little hope that they will do so in the near future.