What the law says:

Article 295(a) of the Bangladeshi Penal Code: “Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of the citizens of Bangladesh, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.”

Article 298 of the Bangladeshi Penal Code: “Whoever, with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person, utters any word or makes any sound in the hearing of that person or makes any gesture in the sight of that person or places any object in the sight of that person, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.”

Information Technology Act, Article 57(1) (1) If any person deliberately publishes or transmits or causes to be published or transmitted in the website or in electronic form any material which is fake and obscene … or causes to deteriorate or creates possibility to deteriorate law and order, prejudice the image of the State or person or causes to hurt or may hurt religious belief … shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to ten years and with fine

Article 39 of the Bangladeshi Constitution: Freedom of thought and conscience, and of speech: (1) Freedom of thought and conscience is guaranteed. (2) Subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence (2a) the right of every citizen of freedom of speech and expression; and freedom of the press, are guaranteed.

How the laws are used:

Bangladesh, as the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recently underlined, is a secular democracy. Islam is the State Religion, but other religious beliefs (and non-belief) are guaranteed equal rights in the constitution. Still, the country has laws that may be used to prosecute blasphemy. The country’s blasphemy laws are a remnant of the British rule of India, and similar to those currently found in India, and other former colonies. Hurting religious feelings may result in fines or even imprisonment, which is not an uncommon occurrence. However, in the past weeks, calls for harsher punishments for blasphemy towards Islam have been heard in demonstrations all over the country.

Mass demonstrations and strikes have become almost daily events in Bangladesh. First incited by the ongoing war crimes tribunal against members of the country’s largest Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, the protests intensified in February after a leader of the party was convicted to life imprisonment. Abdul Qader Mullah was found guilty of several crimes, including rape and murder, committed during the Bangladeshi war of liberation from Pakistan in 1971. After Mullah’s sentencing, bloggers and other online activists organised demonstrations demanding his execution. As a response, Islamist authorities called for demonstrations against the “anti-Islamist and atheist” protesters camping at Shahbag square in the capital Dhaka. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets demanding a blasphemy law with a death sentence to be instituted, and the bloggers to be hanged. After a death sentence was given to another Jamaat leader, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, the demonstrations escalated into violence, with over 40 people killed by the security forces or the protesters.

The Islamist demonstrators are demanding a blasphemy law similar to Pakistan’s, which includes specific reference to Islam, and a possible death penalty for insulting the Prophet. The groups behind the protests have given the government a three week ultimatum to promise to meet their demands, and are pressuring the authorities not only with mass protests, but also by organising nation-wide strikes. It seems unlikely that they will get what they demand though; the Bangladeshi PM is set against stricter blasphemy laws. However, the government has in the past few weeks started arresting bloggers deemed to have insulted religious sentiments; currently four bloggers are held under arrest and may face sentences up to 10 years imprisonment. Several websites have also been ordered to take down “insulting” posts and some have been closed completely.

The motivation behind the recent blasphemy arrests seems to be the government’s wish to calm the Islamist protests, which begun not because of blogs, but the war crimes tribunal. The tribunal is not internationally recognised, and the main opposition, the Bangladesh National Party, is questioning its validity. The BNP also accuses the ruling Awami Leagues of corruption and ballot-fixing. Indeed in a rather questionable move, the editor of the main opposition newspaper, Mahmudur Rahman, was arrested in April for “cyber-crime” and “hurting the feelings of Muslims”. His paper had published a Skype conversation that led to the resignation of the judge of the war crimes tribunal, and reprinted some anti-Islam comments of atheist bloggers. Not only does arresting bloggers and journalists go directly against the government’s avowed stance for secularism and democracy, it also gives legitimacy to the Islamists’ demands, even if the authorities promise that no changes in laws are to be made. The government’s ambiguous stand, and the Islamists’ increasing rage towards the “atheist and anti-Islamic” bloggers make vigilante action a dangerous reality. Indeed, Ahmed Rajib Haider, a prominent blogger critical of Islamic fundamentalism and a Shahbag activist, was murdered in February 2013. Worryingly, it has been reported that Islamist groups have now issued the government with a list of 84 bloggers they consider blasphemous and demanded that they be punished.

The opinions expressed by the bloggers and the secular protesters may certainly insult those who believe that the convicted Islamist leaders fought for the right cause, and that Bangladeshi legislation should go the way of Pakistan. Nevertheless the bloggers, at least according to the Bangladeshi constitution, have the freedom to express their opinions (even if subject to “reasonable restrictions”). And, once again, death threats issued by the extremists should be taken more seriously than alleged hurt feelings. It seems that both the Islamists and the government are attempting to use the secular bloggers as means for political gain; the former to incite protests against the tribunal and pressure the government, and the latter to appease the demonstrators in hopes of restoring order. Blasphemy laws, both existing and called for, make this game possible.

What you can do:

There are several petitions calling for the release of the four arrested bloggers. These have however not attracted many signatures. You may add yours here:


Or here:


Scarlet B

You can take part in the “Scarlet B” campaign by adding this image on your blog or other posts. Or tweet hashtag #HumanistSolidarity to support the Bangladeshi bloggers.

Previously in the series: Tunisia