Bangladeshi police arrested four anti-Islamist writers in the capital, Dhaka, this week. The crackdown comes as protesters demand the death penalty for Islamist leaders accused of war crimes, prompting counter-protests by their supporters.
Asif Mohiuddin, 30, is one of the arrested bloggers. Mohiuddin has only recently recovered from injuries he incurred during an attack on him by a militant Islamist group in January. Detectives took him from his home, just two days after police arrested three other bloggers Subrata Adhikary Shuvo (24), Russell Parvez (36), and Mashiur Rahman Biplob (42), for allegedly hurting the religious beliefs of the people.
Like fellow bloggers around the world, they have criticized both politicians and the press. In this case, they criticized them for being biased toward Islamist views and ideologies in a country that is constitutionally supposed to be secular. All three wrote regularly for Amar Blog, a popular site that was also shut down after the arrests.
“They have hurt the religious feelings of the people by writing against different religions and their prophets and founders including the Prophet Mohammed” said Molla Nazrul Islam, deputy commissioner of the Dhaka police.
The three could face ten years in jail if convicted under the country’s cyber laws which outlaws “defaming” a religion. Home Minister Muhiuddin Khan said the three arrested men were among 84 “atheist bloggers” named in a list handed over by an Islamist group to a government panel probing alleged blasphemy against Islam on the Internet. The crackdown will continue, as Alamgir said that the government has a list of seven more “atheist bloggers” who will soon be arrested.
The arrest of the bloggers took the nation by surprise as the Awami League, the party leading the center-left coalition government, likes to be identified as a secular political party. By arresting the bloggers, the government went against one of the party’s major electoral pledges which was to build a digital Bangladesh; a promise believed to have swayed a large number of young voters in the last national election.
The arrests came in the wake of threats from a little-known Islamist party called Hefazat-e Islam that threatened to march toward the capital to press for “punishing all atheist bloggers.” On Saturday, the group mobilized tens of thousands of supporters for a demonstration in support of blasphemy laws.
Bloggers angered Hefazat-e Islam by launching a mass protest advocating the separation of politics and religion, as well as justice for war crimes victims. The protest began on February 5 and has since continued at one of Dhaka’s busiest intersections, Shahbagh, and thus has been called the Shahbagh movement.
Protests encouraged by secular bloggers have seen hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets demanding the execution of leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, the country’s largest Islamic party. One of the indicted Jamaat-e-Islami leaders is a former president of the New York-based Islamic Circle of North America.
Islamist groups have in turn held demonstrations demanding the trials be halted and have also begun targeting bloggers. A dozen websites and blogs have been blocked by the government to stem the unrest. It also set up a panel, which included intelligence chiefs, to look for blasphemy in the social media.
Meanwhile, a group of bloggers protested the overnight arrests of the three men and said their detention meant the government is caving in to pressure from Islamic groups. “We demand their release. The future of Bangladesh is bleak if the freedom of expression of the bloggers is curbed,” Fahmidul Haq, a blogger and Dhaka University professor, said at a news conference.
Bloggers held hands and formed a human chain in Dhaka to protest the arrests while the popular blog site, Amarblog, said it was shutting down until the bloggers were freed “unconditionally.”