Four Bangladeshi bloggers face lengthy jail terms after a Dhaka court on Sunday charged them with defaming Islam.
Moshiur Rahman Biplob, Subrata Odhikary Shuvo, Russel Parvez and Asif Mohiuddin deny the charges and are to be tried under the country’s controversial internet law. Critics say the law is an attempt to crack down on freedom of expression and dissent.
They could face up to 14 years in prison if found guilty.
“People in Bangladesh are religious-minded and these bloggers are being charged for hurting their religious sentiments with their defamatory and atheistic writings, which is a punishable offence”, said Masudur Rahman, a Dhaka police official.
They were arrested in April, following vigorous campaigns by hardline Islamic group Hifazat-e-Islam (Protectors of Islam), who demanded their arrest and execution.
Hifazat is thought to be linked to the country’s largest fundamentalist Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, whose entire leadership is being prosecuted for war crimes during the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971.
The bloggers were among online activists who organized two months of protests, beginning in February, in Dhaka’s Shahbagh Square to demand the hanging of war criminals and the banning of Jamaat.
“We have been made scapegoats by the government to appease fundamentalist forces,” blogger Mohiuddin said in a recent interview.
Nearly 90 percent of Bangladesh’s 160 million people are Muslim and the majority practice a moderate form of Islam.
However, Mohiuddin and several prominent Bangladeshi writers have been attacked in recent years for their stand against Islam and Islamic groups.
On January 15, Mohiuddin was stabbed near his office in Dhaka while another blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider was murdered near his home in February.
Shahriar Kabir, a writer, filmmaker and secular activist, says that the arrest and prosecution of the bloggers is a threat to freedom of expression in Bangladesh.
“A country can’t be truly democratic if freedom of expression is not ensured. In the case of the bloggers, Islamic extremists will be encouraged by the government’s move”, Kabir said.
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