By Kimberly Winston
Religion News Service
(RNS) An international consortium of nonbelievers is planning rallies Thursday (April 25) outside Bangladeshi embassies and consulates to demand the release of several Bangladeshi bloggers who were arrested on charges of blasphemy.
The rallies are in support of four Bangladeshi men arrested earlier this month for "hurting religious sentiments," a crime tied to an 1860 law that can carry up to 10 years in jail.
The four men -- all bloggers -- staged a sit-in at a public square demanding a ban on the country's largest Islamic political party; Islam is the official state religion in Bangladesh.
Supporters of the party launched a march in response and demanded the arrest of the bloggers, who they termed atheists and anti-Islamic. The bloggers remain in custody, but denied that they are atheists, according to a CNN reporter at the scene.
The rallies are being organized by the Center for Inquiry, American Atheists and the International Humanist and Ethical Union. They will be held outside Bangladeshi institutions in New York, Washington, London; the Canadian cities of Ottawa, Calgary and Vancouver; and in a public park in Columbia, Mo.
"We are trying to show the Bangladeshi government that there are a lot of people in the U.S. and around the world who care about the right to freedom of expression and the plight of the bloggers and others they have put in jail for speaking their minds," said Michael De Dora, director of public policy for the Center for Inquiry, a humanist and skeptic organization.
De Dora said he has been in touch with several people in Bangladesh who know the arrested men and has been told that they all identify as atheists.
"The government has an interest in calling them atheists," he said, because it would then be easier to convict them of blasphemy. "But my sources in Bangladesh tell me they are all atheists, though at different levels of outspokenness."
The alliance of three groups representing humanists, skeptics and atheists in the protests is "historical," De Dora said, and may mark a new level of cooperation in the nonreligious community, which has had some past difficulty in organizing.
"Although we agree on many issues, we don't always have the same approach," De Dora said. "Hopefully we will show people there is wide agreement among this community that freedom of expression is a universal human right."