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Bangladesh Arrests 'Atheist Bloggers,' Cracking Down On Critics

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BANGLADESH BLOGGERS
Bangladeshi bloggers protest the detention of three bloggers by forming a human chain at Dhaka University campus in Dhaka on April 2, 2013. (Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images) | Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- The Bangladeshi government is cracking down on bloggers critical of its pro-Islamist stance, arresting four of these writers in the capital of Dhaka this week.

Asif Mohiuddin, 30, is one of those 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 on Wednesday night, just two days after police arrested three other bloggers for allegedly hurting the religious beliefs of the people.

Subrata Adhikary Shuvo, 24, Russell Parvez, 36, and Mashiur Rahman Biplob, 42, were picked up on Monday night. Like other bloggers around the world, they have criticized both politicians and the press, in this case 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.

Even before bringing any official charges against the three, police marched them before reporters at a press conference on Tuesday. Detectives also seized their laptops and hard disks, which they displayed at the press conference as if the computers were arms recovered from a criminal den.

For now, the three bloggers have been remanded for police questioning for a week. The fate of Mohiuddin is still being determined.

This sort of crackdown on free speech in Bangladesh is nothing new. In the last decade, several journalists, including a cartoonist, have been arrested under the same blasphemy law under which the bloggers were arrested -- an archaic legacy of the British colonial system.

Nonetheless, the four arrests 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. They also undercut one of the party's major electoral pledges, to build a digital Bangladesh -- a promise believed to have swayed a decisive number of young voters in the last national election.

Social media and blogs were flooded with posts furious about the arrests.

"Muzzling the voice of freethinking bloggers: An alarming development in Bangladesh!” read the headline of a post by A.H. Jafar Ullah.

Hours before he was arrested, Parvez had gone after the prime minister and his party, the Awami League, for ostensibly being secular while actually kowtowing to the Islamists.

"What do our partisan intellectuals opine about Sheikh Hasina [the prime minister] being a believer?" blogged Parvez at Unmochon.com.

Shuvo, the youngest arrestee and a member of Bangladesh's Hindu minority, wrote to express his frustration over the media's failure to fight discrimination, noting that repeated attacks on Buddhists and Hindus in the last year had not driven the press to promote a secular society.

Members of the blogging community in Bangladesh who spoke with The Huffington Post said they felt that the arrests had humiliated those four men, and by extension all bloggers, and demonstrated the government's contempt for bloggers. Journalists and development activists criticized the arrests as a violation of the freedom of speech.

A.W. Khan worked in Bangladesh for the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit organization seeking to prevent deadly conflict, for a year and a half. He said he was not at all surprised about the Muslim-dominant government's crackdown on bloggers, given its growing willingness to go along with the Islamists' agenda for political gain.

"These are uncharted waters for Bangladesh. Principally because this is the first time in its 42 year history that a popular non-political movement and Islamists have so heavily influenced the country's political climate. This has overturned the dominance of the three main players in Bangladeshi politics: the governing Awami League, the main opposition BNP [Bangladesh Nationalist Party] and the military," said Khan.

"Given the existing polarities in Bangladeshi politics, between the largely center-left Awami League and the center-right BNP, it's more likely that these two forces will try to appropriate these new voices for their political purpose," he added.

The country’s law minister, Shafique Ahmed, enraged journalists further on Tuesday by announcing that his government was planning to strengthen its control over social media, blogs and online newspapers.

Abu Mustafiz, a blogger and online activist who runs Unmochon.com, said bloggers are essentially mistreated as a minority group in Bangladesh.

"The government won't incite Islamists anyway," he said. "Bloggers are just like any other minority community in terms of their number in a country of 160 million. It is easier for the government to brand bloggers atheists and have them arrested."

And the crackdown may continue. On Wednesday, Home Minister M.K. Alamgir said the government has a list of seven more "atheist bloggers" who will soon be arrested.

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 on April 6 to press for "punishing all atheist bloggers."

Bloggers ignited the ire of 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 Feb. 5 and has been going non-stop in one of Dhaka's busiest intersections, Shahbagh -- hence it has been dubbed the Shahbagh movement.

In particular, the protesters are demanding that victims have the same right as the accused to appeal a verdict in the International Crimes Tribunal, which was set up by the current government to deal with war crimes committed during Bangladesh's independence war in 1971.

Right now, the ICT is trying nine men for crimes against humanity during the war. Three million people were killed in the war's nine months, and hundreds of thousands of women were raped.

Seven of those being tried are leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, a party that opposed the country's independence from Pakistan and perpetrated war crimes listed by the Guinness Book of Records as among the five deadliest 20th-century killings. Two of the accused Jamaat leaders have been sentenced to death by hanging. The protesters, however, want the ICT to try Jamaat-e-Islami as an entity, as well as the nine individuals.

After bloggers began calling for the protest, Jamaat activists ran an aggressive online campaign against Shahbagh movement organizers, sometimes with doctored websites showing posts defaming Islam.

But the decision to arrest the bloggers still came out of the blue.

"When the same government that formed a tribunal to try war criminals takes a stance against free-thinking and pro-liberation bloggers, then the new generation has the right to ask, 'Et tu, Brutus?'" said Imran H. Sarker, a spokesman for those organizing the Shahbagh movement.

"What does it signal when a government takes such a position?" asked Mehzabin Ahmed, a development activist. "This is a clear violation of a citizen's constitutional right."

A senior television journalist summed up his anger on his Facebook page. "In this country, it is not a big issue to attack someone with rifle, machetes or hurling bombs at him/her. It becomes a big issue when you hurt somebody using your pen and keyboard," posted JE Mamun.

Meanwhile, several people -- including a blogger and the child of someone who organized Shabagh movement efforts elsewhere in Bangladesh -- were killed, allegedly for organizing the protests, and police failed to name any suspect until recently.

Even after all the bloggers' arrests, Hefazat-e Islam is not happy with the government.

In a statement released after the detention of the three bloggers on Monday, the Islamist party said those arrested were not well-known. It called for finding and punishing the "real culprits."

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