After four brutal murders of secular and atheist bloggers this year, Bangladeshi police told writers this week they should not be "hurting religious sentiments."
The police focused on reminding bloggers that they will arrest writers who criticize religion, Malaysian Insider writes, instead of committing to finding and prosecuting the people who hacked the bloggers to death:
“Hurting religious sentiments is a crime according to our law, and for hurting someone's religious sentiment, the person will be punished by up to 14 years in jail,” police inspector-general AKM Shahidul Hoque told reporters in Dhaka August 9.
“Those who are free thinkers and writers, I request them, please make sure that they don’t cross the line. Anything that may hurt anyone’s religious sentiments or beliefs should not be written,” he said.
The police chief's comments came just a few days after the most recent killing, of blogger Niloy Chatterjee, who wrote under the pen name Niloy Neel. “It’s shocking that Bangladesh authorities not only failed to protect the bloggers despite complaints to the police about threats against them, but instead are proposing self-censorship,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “The government should recall that its duty is to uphold the Constitution and protect people’s lives, as well as their religious freedom.”
The Bangladeshi Constitution says that Islam is the country's official religion but provides the right for all religions to be protected equally. The constitution also protects "freedom of thought and conscience, and of speech" as a fundamental right.
An offshoot of Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), claimed responsibility for last week's murder, according to The New York Times. This afternoon, police in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka arrested two men allegedly connected to the crime, Al Jazeera America reports:
Two suspected members of an outlawed group known as the Ansarullah Bangla Team were arrested in Dhaka for alleged links to the killing of 40-year-old blogger Niloy Chatterjee, Senior Police Official Mahbub Alam said.
And while there have been a few arrests in the murder cases this year, police have made little progress investigating or prosecuting them. Karin Karlekar, Director of Free Expression Programs for the PEN American Center, says there's a hit list circulating in Bangladesh of about 80 bloggers and journalists, published by hard-line Islamist groups.
Some bloggers, including Chatterjee, have tried to register complaints with police in the lead-up to their deaths, she told Fusion. "It's ridiculous that those who are going to the police are not being given protection at this point," she said.
Dozens of bloggers fearing for their lives are now trying to escape the country, she said, and most of them have stopped writing, in an effort to keep low profiles and escape the fate of their fellow writers.
"It's such a dramatic deterioration in a relatively short space of time. It's ridiculous given that Bangladesh has a pretty open religious press environment in general," said Karlekar.
So how did a country where it seemed like the press freedom environment was improving over the last decade get to this point? It's about more than just bloggers generally against Islamic extremism, though those targeted were mostly secular Hindus and Muslims.
Karlekar says that recent tensions come from a decades-old conflict over war crimes committed during Bangladesh's war of independence against Pakistan in 1971. Some of the people accused of committing atrocities during the war went on to join the country's Jamaat-e-Islami Islamist political party, some of them getting elected to government positions over the following decades.
In 2008, a newly-elected government less aligned with the Islamist party said they would finally bring the alleged war criminals to justice. Two years later, Bangledesh's International Crimes Tribunal was launched. As top Jamaat-e-Islami party leaders began to be tried and convicted, their supporters clashed with hundreds of thousands of protestors who gathered in the capital city Dhaka's main square, Shahbag, demanding harsher punishments for those convicted.
Most of the bloggers killed recently were either involved in the protests or ideologically supported the trials, Karlekar says. "The trend with the bloggers seems to be really tied in the last two years with the Shahbag movement," she said.