Human Rights Watch today urged the Bangladesh government to declare an unequivocal commitment to free speech instead of proposing self-censorship.
“Bangladesh authorities should unequivocally declare their commitment to free speech instead of proposing self-censorship,” the international human rights body said in a press release.
The killing of secular blogger Niladri Chakrabarti is a harrowing reminder of the need for the Bangladesh government to take immediate steps to protect the security of all and end attempts at muzzling independent voices, HRW observed.
Chakrabarti, who used the pen name Niloy Neel, is the fourth blogger to be murdered in Bangladesh this year for advocating secularism. All four were listed by extremist groups as among 84 bloggers they described as anti-Islamic and blasphemous.
Instead of addressing police failure to respond to threats against Chakrabarti or to arrest those responsible for the earlier murders, Inspector General of Police AKM Shahidul Hoque warned “that hurting religious sentiments is a crime according to our law.”
While assuring a speedy investigation, Hoque recommended: “Those who are free thinkers and writers, I will request them, please make sure that we don’t cross the line. Anything that may hurt anyone’s religious sentiments or beliefs should not be written.”
“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.
“The government should recall that its duty is to uphold the Constitution and protect people’s lives, as well as their religious freedom.”
Although Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said there will be a speedy investigation into the blogger murders, she had earlier also promised action against bloggers for “hurting people’s religious sentiments,” he said.
Her government has also targeted free speech, threatening or prosecuting contempt of court cases against civil society activists and journalists, shuttering media houses critical of the government, and arresting human rights defenders who criticize violations by security forces.
Chakrabarti was attacked in his home on July 7 in the capital, Dhaka, by machete-wielding assailants who inflicted fatal stab injuries.
Police said the men gained entry by pretending to be potential new tenants. The police filed a murder case against four alleged militants, but none have been arrested. A group called Ansar-ul-Islam, allegedly an Al-Qaeda affiliate, publicly claimed responsibility for the murder. “If your ‘Freedom of Speech’ maintains no limits, then widen your chests for ‘Freedom of our Machetes,’” the group wrote in an email sent to media, their warning an echo of the police chief’s words.
In February, blogger Avijit Roy, a United States national of Bangladeshi origin, and his wife were attacked with machetes on a street in Dhaka. Roy was killed while his wife narrowly escaped the attack.
Ansar-ul-Islam also claimed responsibility for this attack. A month later, blogger Washiqur Rahman was murdered in a similar attack on a Dhaka street. In May, 33-year-old blogger Ananta Bijoy Das was killed in a machete attack in Sylhet city.
In February 2013, another atheist blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was stabbed to death and a month later, in March, blogger Asif Mohiuddin was severely injured in a similar attack.
Human Rights Watch called upon the Bangladesh government to immediately investigate these premeditated killings, and identify and prosecute those that conspired or ordered these murders.
“Sheikh Hasina’s government can’t afford to send mixed messages about these attacks on bloggers just for expressing their opinions about religion,” Adams said.
“Instead of trying to appease the attackers, it’s time for her government to state that those who plan, incite, order, and carry out acts of violence will be prosecuted,” he added.