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Machete attacks on free speech

  • Published at 12:22 pm August 20th, 2015
Machete attacks on free speech

Free speech in Bangladesh is under attack as never before, held hostage between angry, machete-wielding radicals on one hand, and a government, quick to take offence, on the other.

Four bloggers have been murdered this year by religious extremists for promoting secularism, a principle which these groups consider to be anti-Islam.

Following the killing of blogger Niloy Neel earlier this month, Ansar Al Islam, an insurgent group linked to al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility, saying they had the “permission of Allah,” and warned of further attacks. While police were aware of threats to Niloy Neel and the other slain bloggers, they failed to properly protect them.

Niladri Chatterjee was a Bangladeshi blogger who wrote about religious fundamentalism and secularism. He was hacked to death on August 7. 

A reasonable government would have swiftly condemned these murders and would have tried to hunt down the attackers. Instead, the police’s first instinct was to urge self-censorship, with Bangladesh’s inspector general of police, AKM Shahidul Hoque, warning that “hurting religious sentiments is a crime.”

It took more than a week for police to arrest three suspects in Niloy Neel’s murder case, despite the alleged perpetrators’ identities being known to the police.

The police chief’s comments were shocking, but not surprising, given that Bangladeshi authorities are increasingly seen to be cracking down on freedom of expression.

Probir Sikdar was arrested by the dreaded Detective Branch, a specialist police intelligence unit, for his Facebook posts accusing a cabinet minister and other politicians of committing war crimes during the country’s war for independence. The prosecutor said Sikdar had “cast aspersion on the minister using information technology.”

Last week, a Bangladesh court sentenced IT lecturer Muhammad Ruhul Amin Khandaker, in absentia, to three years in prison for a Facebook post he made in 2011 on the death of an acclaimed Bangladeshi film-maker in a road accident, blaming politicians for not ensuring road safety and wondering how the prime minister was spared such mishaps. For this remark, judges found him guilty of sedition.

And just two weeks ago, the police issued a statement criticising two prominent human rights groups. It took more than a week for the police to arrest three suspects in Niloy Neel’s murder case, despite the alleged perpetrators’ identities being known to the police for reporting on extra-judicial executions and other abuses by security forces.

They said that any activity that harms the police’s reputation amounts to defamation, and can be considered subversive.

Bangladesh needs to change course, adopt international standards, and uphold constitutional freedoms and do it fast. Because, as long as authorities continue to crush free speech, those who speak out risk losing their lives. 

This article first appeared on www.hrw.org.

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