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April 10, 2013

Bangladesh’s Status Quo on Blasphemy

Over the weekend, hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis marched in the streets, calling for the death penalty for two bloggers who allegedly insulted Islam. Yes, you read correctly. That’s hundreds of thousands of protesters, according to press reports. Under the law, bloggers can be jailed for up to 10 years for defaming a religion. That’s apparently not enough for many Bangladeshis.

As often happens in blasphemy cases, the accusations of boil down to political score settling. The bloggers wrote that senior members of the Jamaat e Islami, the largest Bangladeshi Islamic party, should receive the death penalty for crimes committed during the 1971 independence war. In response, Islamists invoked the country’s blasphemy law and called for the bloggers to be killed.

Under Section 295A of Bangladesh's Penal Code (1860), any person who has a deliberate or "malicious" intention of hurting religious sentiments is liable to imprisonment.  There have been previous attempts by the Jamaat e Islami to create a law authorizing the death penalty for blasphemy, like Pakistan’s. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina firmly rejected calls to strengthen blasphemy laws, reaffirming that “this country is a secular democracy.” But Hasina defended the law in the current form.

It’s obvious that the secular Bangladeshi government is facing pressure from hardline Islamist politicians and public protesters. But what’s missing in in the debate is how allegations of blasphemy have caused outbreaks of violence and instability.  As examples from Bangladesh and other countries show, violent extremists use accusations of blasphemy to advance their own political agendas.

Blasphemy laws also stifle discussion and dissent in the public sphere and allow governments to prevent the peaceful expression of political or religious views. These laws also create problems for religious minorities who are often deemed heretical by a nation’s majority or state-backed religious establishments.

So rather than justifying the legal status-quo in order to avoid the worst-case scenario of further criminalizing blasphemy, we urge the Bangladeshi government and civil society to debate the risks of existing blasphemy laws.

Human Rights First has documented several important cases in Bangladesh, where existing blasphemy laws have violated human rights. Here are some examples:

  • On June 5, 2012, an arrest warrant was issued for Salam Azad, the author of a banned book Bahanga Math (“Broken Temple”) allegedly containing insulting remarks about the Prophet Muhammad. The book was banned for blasphemy by the Bangladeshi government in 2004; however, no charges of blasphemy had been previously brought against Azad. The writer has claimed that a smear campaign was launched by a senior official whom Azad publicly accused of corruption and land grabbing.
     
  • On March 21, 2012, the Dhaka High Court ordered authorities to shut down five Facebook pages and a website shortly after a joint petition was filed by Dhaka University professors who alleged that the content contained “disparaging remarks and cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad, the Muslim holy book of Koran, Jesus, Lord Buddha, and Hindu Gods.”  This was the first time that Facebook pages have been blocked on charges of “hurting religious sentiment.”
     
  • On January 4, 2012, Yunus Ali, the principal of a technical college, was arrested for keeping a copy of the novel Lajja, (“Shame”), by Taslinma Nasrin in the school library. The book, which tells the story of the life of a Hindu family persecuted in Bangladesh, was deemed blasphemous and banned in 1993. Nasreen was forced to flee the country in 1994 after receiving death threats.
     
  • In August 2011, a coalition of pro-Sharia Islamic parties threatened the Bangladesh government with a country-wide strike if Madan Mohan Das, an assistant headmaster at a government high school, was not arrested and charged with making blasphemous comments about the Prophet Muhammad. Hundreds of teachers, students and parents protested against Das who was suspended from his job. This was the second Hindu teacher in two weeks to be suspended for allegedly making blasphemous remarks.
     
  • On June 29, 2010, three of the top leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami (Jel), one of the country’s most powerful political parties, were arrested on charges of “hurting religious sentiments of Islam.”  The Secretary General of the Bangladesh Tarikat Federation filed the complaint, accusing the Jamaat leaders of comparing their party’s chief, Motiur Rahman Nizami, with the Prophet Muhammad. Clashes between the Bangladesh police and supporters of Jamaat-e-Islami occurred as a result of the arrests. In July, 2010, more than 100 protestors belonging to Jel were arrested during demonstrations organized in response to the allegations made against their leaders.