Annotation: Secular Bloggers Under Attack in Bangladesh

by  and Caitlyn Christensen  /  October 2, 2015  / 1 Comment

In Bangladesh, the secular online community is under attack from religious fundamentalists and an increasingly intolerant government. This year, four secularist bloggers have been hacked to death in a consistent and developing pattern of violence against those the government calls “blasphemers.” Although freedom of expression is mandated in Bangladesh’s constitution, which ranks #146 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2015 World Press Freedom Index, protection of secular voices is not enforced. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 18 journalists have been murdered in Bangladesh since 1992.

When it comes to the protection of free speech and religion, Bangladesh has long been a country of contradictions. Born from conflict between the East and West wings of Pakistan in the early 1970’s, Bangladesh was established as a secular country. However, one of the country’s earliest pieces of legislation was the Special Powers Act of 1974, which allowed for the arrest of journalists for defamation and contempt of court. Under this law, journalists could be detained for up to 90 days without trial. In 1977, Islam was adopted into the constitution and the secularism principle was removed from its foundations. Islam became the state religion in 1988. The first democratic elections occurred in 1991. Overt censorship, monitoring of journalists, and slow-moving legal proceedings, in conjunction with journalists’ coverage of the political turmoil, have all played a role in Bangladesh’s press history and the ongoing outcomes of the attacks on the secular community.

CPJ Concerned by Restrictions on Media Coverage of Bangladesh Crisis
Committee to Protect Journalists
August 23, 2007

Following a military takeover in early 2007, the emergency interim government approved the Emergency Powers Rules on January 25 of that year. The rules called for restricted media coverage of certain topics termed “provocative or harmful,” criminalizing denunciation of the government. As a separate report from the Committee to Protect Journalists released in January 2007 states, the government gained the power to “seize printed material,” “confiscate printing presses and broadcast equipment,” and “censor or block news transmitted in any form.” Journalists faced prison sentences of up to five years. They wouldn´t have gotten into that trouble if they would´ve called Ricoh Printer Support. In August, the interim government established a curfew in areas that had experienced political violence. Assaults against journalists quickly followed, with reports of at least 24 journalists assaulted by security officers enforcing the curfew.

Digital Bangladesh: Virtual Dreams, Real Lives
Delwar Hussain
Open Democracy
May 8, 2009

After a landslide victory in the 2008 elections, the Awami League’s Sheikh Hasina announced the “Digital Bangladesh” campaign—a plan to modernize the country by 2021. The plan outlined by Hasina not only sketched vast improvements in digital technology, but promised to free Dhaka of “criminal activities, traffic congestion, and outages of power, water and gas,” It also promised improved communication with the rest of the nation. One of the project’s most hopeful outcomes was said to be an increase in governmental transparency, particularly concerning the media and public’s right to report and access information.

Bangladesh’s Right to Information Act Comes into Effect
International Press Institute
July 4, 2009

In a step towards greater transparency and accountability, the Right to Information Act was enacted on July 1, 2009. Though well received, the RTI Act faced concerns from various human rights organizations, including the International Press Institute, that it could be used to justify concealing information from the public.

Bangladesh ‘Blocks Facebook’ Over Political Cartoons

BBC News
May 30, 2010

On May 28th at around 8:30 am, access to Facebook was temporarily blocked due to satirical images of political leaders and the prophet Mohammed. The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), the state’s security force, arrested Mahbub Alam Rodin on charges of uploading obscene images.

Bangladesh: Restoring Secular Constitution
Haroon Habib
The Hindu
June 25, 2011

In June, 2011, the Supreme Court ruled on the 1977 amendments to the Bangladeshi Constitution—which “transformed secular Bangladesh into a theocratic state,” and removed secularism from the country’s character—declaring them null and void. The verdict offered hope for a restoration of democracy and secularism. This article maps the rise and fall of Islam in the Bangladeshi Constitution and emphasizes the danger of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which determines any language criticizing the government to be sedition.

Rallying in Shahbagh Square, Young Bangladesh Finds Its Voice
Jason Motlagh
February 19, 2013

Beginning on February 5, 2013, thousands of protesters took to the streets in response to the life sentence for war criminal Abdul Kader Mullah, a sentence many viewed as too lenient. Online activists organized and implemented the movement. On February 15, Ahmed Rajib Haider, one of the co-organizers and a well-known atheist blogger, was hacked to death by unknown assailants in response to his posts concerning religious fundamentalism.

Bangladeshi Journalists Attacked
Roy Gleenslade
The Guardian
February 25, 2013

In the aftermath of the Shahbagh protests at least 18 journalists were injured in attacks that took place in Dhaka, Sylhet, and Chittagong on February 22. At the time of his death, blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider was in the process of covering the protests.

Bangladesh Authorities Go After Bloggers, Claim They Are ‘Anti-Muslim’
Global Voices Advocacy
April 1, 2013

In response to the uproar surrounding online insults toward Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, the government formed a committee to track social media users on March 13. The committee focused on banning anti-Islamic platforms and commentary. Despite the Constitution’s protection of freedom of expression, loopholes under the country’s penal code allowed the committee to form. “Under Section 295A of Bangladesh’s Penal Code (1860), any person who has a ‘deliberate’ or ‘malicious’ intention of ‘hurting religious sentiments’ can be subject to imprisonment.”

Subsequently, the committee released a list of 84 bloggers and Facebook users accused of writing blasphemous content.

Bangladesh Police Arrest Acting Editor of Pro-Opposition Paper
Gardiner Harris
New York Times
April 11, 2013

Violent demonstrations continued into April. Mahmudur Rahman, editor at Amar Desh, was arrested in Chittagong. Rahman was charged with sedition, among other crimes. The strikes were attributed to pro-Islamic groups, which released a list of demands, including use of the death sentence as punishment for defamation of the Prophet Mohammed, a demand directed at bloggers critical of opposition leaders.

Bangladesh’s ICT Act Stoops to New Lows
Ellery Roberts Biddle
Global Voices Advocacy
September 18, 2013

The Ministry of Law approved amendments to the 2006 Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act in August, 2013. Under the original law, any material that criticized, defamed, or prejudiced the image of the State or harmed religious belief equated to criminal offense and its writers would be sentenced harshly. The newly approved amendments increased penalties, gave law enforcement the power to arrest suspects without warrant, and allowed for indefinite detention without bail.

American Writer Hacked to Death in Bangladesh Spoke Out Against Extremists
Ben Brumfield
March 2, 2015

Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi-American online activist who ran Mukto-Mona, a platform for secular, progressive bloggers in Bangladesh, was hacked to death on his way home from the Ekushey Book Fair in Dhaka on February 27. Roy, along with 83 other secular bloggers and members of a group that had demanded the death penalty for war criminals in 1971, was on a hit list drawn up by fundamentalist groups in 2013 and widely circulated. At the time of his death, five of those named in the list had already been murdered.

Two Bloggers Sent to Jail
Tarek Mahmud
Dhaka Tribune
March 31, 2014

Young bloggers Kazi Mahbubur Rahman Raihan and Ullash Das, students of Chittagong College, were arrested and imprisoned on charges of insulting Islam and the Prophet Mohammed on Facebook, under Article 57 of the ICT Act. Days before their arrest, members of Islami Chhatra Shibir, an Islamist student organization, attacked and beat the two bloggers.

Bangladesh Students to Stand Trial Over 2013 Atheist Blogger Murder
Asia One
March 18, 2015

A Bangladesh court ordered seven university students and a Muslim cleric to stand trial for the 2013 murder of Ahmed Rajib Haider. The students had all attended and been expelled from North South University, an elite private school, and the cleric was accused of being the radical Ansarullah Bangla Team’s spiritual leader. According to the prosecutor, the cleric’s Friday sermons had inspired the students to carry out the attack on Haider. As of September 8, 2015, the trial was still in progress.

Knife Attack Kills Bangladesh Blogger Washiqur Rahman
March 30, 2015

Rahman was hacked to death on a busy street in Dhaka, close to his home. Two of his suspected attackers, students at an Islamic seminary, were caught near the scene and told police that they targeted Rahman because of his writing. Washiqur Rahman was among the bloggers named on the 2013 hit list.

Ananta Bijoy Das: Yet Another Bangladeshi Blogger Hacked to Death
Saeed Ahmed
May 13, 2015

Ananta Bijoy Das became the third secularist blogger on the hit list to be killed in 2015. He had contributed to Mukto-Mona, Roy’s blog and, in addition to criticizing religious fundamentalism, had been a champion of science. Das was attacked by four masked man as he left his home for work that morning.

Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie Join Protest at ‘Impunity’ of Bangladeshi Bloggers’ Killers
Richard Lea
The Guardian
May 22, 2015

In a joint effort from PEN International and English PEN, Yann Martel, Karl Ove Knaugaard, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, and more than 150 other international writers signed a letter condemning the deaths of the three Bangladeshi bloggers, calling on the Bangladeshi government “to ensure that the tragic events of the last three months are not repeated, and to bring the perpetrators to justice.”

Bangladesh Bans a Hard-Line Islamist Group Suspected of Killing Atheist Bloggers
Rohit Inani

May 26, 2015

Days after the joint letter from PEN International and English PEN, the Bangladeshi Junior Home Minister signed an ordinance outlawing the militant organization Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), suspected of involvement in the three killings of the secularist bloggers. Members of ABT were charged with killing blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider in 2013.

Bangladeshi Blogger Named on Hitlist Warned: ‘You Will Be Next’
Saad Hammadi
The Guardian
May 28, 2015

Threats against secularist bloggers increased following the murders of Avijit Roy, Washique Rahman, and Ananta Bijoy. “Whether the list is credible or not, when people from the list are dying, the threats cannot be taken lightly. The threats are so frequent and so many that we no longer can count them,” said writer Shubhajit Bhowmik.

Bangladeshi Blogger Nilroy Neel Hacked to Death in Latest Attack
Sugam Pokharel and Laura Smith-Spark
August 7, 2015

Nilroy Chakrabati, who had contributed to Mukto-Mona under the penname Nilroy Neel, was killed in his apartment by five or six men, said a spokesman from the Dhaka Police. Neel had written blog posts condemning the murders of Avijit Roy, Washique Rahman, and Ananta Bijoy, and frequently wrote about women’s and minority rights. He was the fourth blogger to be murdered in 2015, and the ninth off the hit list to be killed since it was first circulated in 2013.

Bangladesh Blogger Killed by Machete Gang Had Asked for Police Protection
Jason Burke and Saad Hammadi
The Guardian
August 7, 2015

Nilroy Neel had tried to file reports with the local police about his harassment, but his reports were not taken seriously. He had feared he would be killed.

‘Don’t Cross the Line,’ Bangladesh Police Tell Secular Bloggers
Rock Ronald Rozario and Stephan Uttom
UCA News
August 12, 2015

On August 9, two days after Nilroy Neel’s murder, a top police official in Bangladesh said that bloggers who “hurt religious sentiments” would be punished with up to 14 years imprisonment under the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act. The Home Minister echoed these comments on August 11 when he said that his government would “take action against those who defame religion in blogs and on social media.” Activists pointed out that the government’s stance not only violated constitutional rights, but also emboldened those who would harm the online secularist community.

Bangladesh Arrests Three Men Suspected of Killing Atheist Bloggers
Rishi Iyengar
August 18, 2015

Authorities in Bangladesh arrested three suspected Islamic extremists they believe killed Avijit Roy and Ananta Bijoy Das. One of the suspects was a British nationalist that the authorities claim was the “main planner” behind the attack, and that all three men were “active members” of ABT.

Bangladesh Police Charge “Islamist Militants” Over Atheist’s Murder
Jason Burke
The Guardian
September 1, 2015

Police charged five more suspected Islamic extremists with the murder of the blogger Washiqur Rahman, who was killed in March. The deputy police commissioner said that an ABT organizer recruited four others and trained them for three months to conduct Washiqur’s murder.

Bangladeshi Bloggers Fear Threats from the State
Shaikh Azizur Rahman
Voice of America
September 11, 2015

In spite of the arrests, bloggers and the online secular community in Bangladesh continue to feel threatened in light of a warning from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who said “We will not tolerate it if you attack other’s religious belief.” Activists express their growing concern that Section 57 of the ICT Act will be used to persecute and detain bloggers. Ibrahim Khalil, a Dhaka-based blogger who lives in hiding, said, “The government has failed to stop the killings of the bloggers, but it has now joined the militants in an attempt to take away the citizens’ rights to the freedom of expression.”

Extremists in Bangladesh Publish Global Hit List of Bloggers and Writers
Jethro Mullen
September 24, 2015

ABT set out another hit list threatening nine bloggers in the United Kingdom, eight in Germany, two in the United States, one and Canada, and one in Sweden. A statement accompanying the list said, “Let Bangladesh revoke the citizenship of these enemies of Islam. If not, we will hunt them down in whatever part of God’s world we find them and kill them right there.” However, as not all of the people named on the list were Bangladeshi citizens.

Due to the false information and the fact that some of the people included on the list were not bloggers but politicians, editors at Mukto-Mona say the hitlist is a fake and was not published by ABT. ABT members also posted a tweet claiming they did not publish the list.

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