Bangladeshi bloggers

Yesterday, four Bangladeshi atheist bloggers were indicted for posting derogatory material about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad online. The bloggers, who were first arrested in April, will now face up to 14 years imprisonment and hefty fines. They are the first people to be tried under the country’s new Information Technology Act, which bans the publication of online material that “causes hurt to religious beliefs.”

The Metropolitan Sessions Court in the country’s capital Dhaka decided yesterday that the bloggers will face trial in November. Asif Mohiuddin, Subrata Adhikari Shuvo, Moshiur Rahman Biplob and Rasel Parvez are free on bail at the moment after spending almost three months in jail. They pleaded not guilty at the hearing on Sunday, and petitioned for the charges to be dropped. The court nevertheless rejected the petitions and ordered the trial to begin on November 6. The evidence given by the police on Sunday claimed that the derogatory posts of the four bloggers caused “a slide in law and order that led to anarchy.”

The bloggers were arrested amid heating tensions between Bangladeshi Islamists and anti-Islamist activists. In February, a blogger critical of Islam and the country’s largest Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami was murdered. In early April, the convictions of two of the party leaders in a war crimes tribunal sparked mass demonstrations and nationwide strikes. The pro-Islamist protesters called for Pakistani-inspired blasphemy laws, with death penalty for insulting the Prophet. They also accused “atheist bloggers” of organising the anti-Islamist Shahbagh movement, which held demonstrations demanding the death penalty for the convicted leaders.

The arrest of the bloggers was condemned by several human rights groups. But in Bangladesh a prominent Islamist group Hefazat-e-Islam vocally campaigned for their prosecution. While Bangladesh is in principle a secular country, the government has good reason to try and appease influential Islamist groups. The indictment of the bloggers now comes after violent demonstrations over a recent court decision in which Jamaat-e-Islami’s registration with the Election Committee was ruled invalid, jeopardising the party’s participation in the elections next year. The indictment of yet another of the party’s leaders for “crimes against humanity” last weekend is also likely to cause further unrest.