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Bangladesh Bloggers Face Constant Death Threats Since Government Labeled Them 'Atheist'

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BANGLADESHI BLOGGERS
Islamists burn an effigy of a blogger in Dhaka, Bangladesh, during a Feb. 24, 2013, nationwide strike demanding that the "atheist" bloggers be hanged. (Photo by Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images) | Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- Even though Rasel Parvez is out of prison, he isn't out of danger.

"They have pushed my life to a state in which I cannot walk free. I remain in self-confinement day after day, and my social relations are mostly snapped," said Parvez, 36, in an interview with The Huffington Post.

He is talking about the Bangladeshi government, which arrested him and three other bloggers last month for "derogatory comments about Islam." Parvez, who is currently out on bail, has been branded with the label "atheist" blogger because he dared to criticize the abuse of religion by politicians.

It took Parvez and Subrata Adhikary Shuvo, 24, another arrested blogger, more than a month to obtain bail. The other two -- Mashiur Rahman Biplob, 42, and Asif Mohiuddin, 30 -- remain in jail.

But Parvez's own home in Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital city, has become something of a prison, as he fears for his life whenever he steps outside.

After his release from jail, some of his most vociferous critics took to Facebook to offer rewards to anyone who killed Parvez, with one offer as high as $12,871 in U.S. dollars. (Per capita income in Bangladesh in 2010 was $641 a year.)

"Who knows -- some of them may be waiting just outside my house," said Parvez.

His wife, Asma Begum, said she's at her wit's end. She does her best to protect Parvez -- among other things, preventing him from taking phone calls until she has checked the caller's identity.

"His insecurity means the entire family is in danger," Begum said.

"I don't know if he could go to the office again. I am not sure if it is safe now to shift our home and find a new address. And how long should I expect him to live an imprisoned life like this?" she asked.

Newcomers to Bangladesh's blogosphere consider Parvez a first-generation blogger. A graduate in physics from the University of Connecticut, he has tried to use science to challenge religious doctrine in his home country. But he said he has never written anything that was intended to defame the Prophet Muhammad.

The term blogger, let alone "atheist" blogger, was barely known in the country before February of this year, when activists took to a busy intersection in Dhaka, demanding that all war criminals from Bangladesh's 1971 battle for independence be hanged. An online call by bloggers, dissatisfied over the sentencing of a war criminal to life in prison -- even after his complicity in war atrocities was proved -- touched off the protest known as the Shahbagh movement.

Since then, bloggers have found themselves in the cross hairs, with death threats becoming part of the job. One of them was killed in February by Islamist fundamentalists, who justified the murder by saying the blogger was a nonbeliever. More broadly, a massive smear campaign was launched targeting bloggers.

Following a demand by a little-known Islamist party called Hefazat-e-Islam, the government arrested the four bloggers, including Parvez, in early April. Even before any formal charges were brought against them, the men were labeled "atheists" and paraded before the media.

"While standing before the media after my arrest, I could feel how this exposure would endanger my life," said Parvez, adding, "I have yet to get an idea about the extent of the jeopardy I am in. I need to know how well-known I am by the identity of an 'atheist' blogger."

But Parvez started to get a feel for his dangerous situation while in jail. The bloggers were put in a 10x10 foot interrogation room with other prisoners -- including individuals who clearly wished them ill, according to Parvez.

"Three of them had been arrested for a January attack on Asif [Mohiuddin], who needed 56 stitches to close the wounds inflicted in his neck and parts of his body upwards," said Parvez.

Along with Mohiuddin's attackers, the cell also contained a handful of activists with Jamaat-e-Islami, the Islamist party whose top leaders are facing war crimes charges. They were furious at the sight of Mohiuddin and proceeded to curse and threaten all the bloggers for approximately two hours, Parvez recalled.

He said the other prisoners taunted them with such threats as, "Even if we could not kill them you, our brothers will definitely succeed. Those standing against our religion deserve to be assassinated."

That wasn't all the bloggers had to endure while incarcerated. When they were transferred to the local prison, the news of their arrival proceeded them, according to Parvez, and other Jamaat-e-Islami supporters, already in prison, gathered to scorn them.

"They knew Asif, as his photograph was published in the media after he was attacked. They became sure of our identity, seeing Asif with us. They used all kinds of derogatory and dirty language as they talked. They even threatened to harass us sexually; some threatened to rape us," Parvez recollected.

The bloggers were kept confined to their cells around the clock for the first three days.

Now, the government suggests the bloggers should agree to stay in prison for the next five years for their personal security.

"How can I stay in jail for five years when I have kids and a family?" lamented Parvez.

"I have heard about the rewards announced to get my head," he said. "The amount of money promised is enough to encourage at least a thousand killers to get the job done, given that sometimes only 2,000 taka [about $25.74] can get your enemy killed in Bangladesh."

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