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Secularism, Freedom of Expression and Radicalisation: The Killing of Bloggers in Bangladesh

17/05/2016 11:10 | Updated 17 May 2016

Bangladesh became a Nation-State in 1971, having achieved its full independence from Pakistan. The year 1972 constituted one of the brightest chapters of the country's history. It represented the birth of a new nation, the beginning of a new hope for its citizens. In this context, the first constitution of the People's Republic of Bangladesh was approved, and its preamble identified the four pillars of the new State: nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism.

However, nearly 45 years after this inspiring period, the ideals of the Bangladesh transition and original Constitution seem to have been forgotten.

Democracy and Secularism: the lost pillars

The last parliamentary elections in Bangladesh, in 2014, were marked by violence and authoritarianism. Hundreds of citizens lost their lives while demonstrating against the unpopular electoral decisions taken by the Awami League, and in support of the main opposition parties who had taken the decision not to participate in what promised to be an unfair electoral process. We must note that although the international community fiercely criticized the elections, the Awami League, which won the majority of parliamentary seats, continues to hold power and refuses to address what is widely accepted as being an unfair an undemocratic process. Therefore, without representative and pluralistic elections, democracy has all but disappeared in Bangladesh.

The Awami League, historically, is seen as one of the greatest advocates of secularism; a perception that, nevertheless, must be revised taking into account the recent developments in its Government's policy.

Almost a dozen secular, atheist or liberal writers and bloggers have been murdered in Bangladesh at the hands of extremist religious groups in the last two years. These deaths have raised widespread concerns due to their radical and extremist character. Most of the victims died after having been hacked to death with knives and machetes. The killings are deplorable and must be condemned in the strongest terms, denying the validity of new religious-based intolerant trends. Moreover, dozens more, including LGTB activists and university professors have received death threats.

Although the State of Bangladesh cannot be held directly responsible for these deaths, human rights conventions and international treaties impose positive obligation on States to investigate and prosecute. It is at this point where the Government of Bangladesh must be held accountable.

Blaming the victims

It is concerning that these killings have been met with the most outraging impunity, as Bangladesh authorities have been unable to prosecute and condemn the authors of these crimes.

However, even more concerning is the fact that the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, far from defending the unjustifiable character of these killings, has blamed the victims for their fates. After the murder of Niloy Neel, she held that "You can't attack someone else's religion. You'll have to stop doing this. It won't be tolerated if someone else's religious sentiment is hurt" and, more recently, she added that she considers the writings of the victims "as not free thinking but filthy words. Why would anyone write such things? It's not at all acceptable if anyone writes against our [prophet] or other religions. This is a characteristic fault, expression of distorted or filthy mindset". These are not the words of condemnation; these are words with a clear inference.

These words are unacceptable from a political leader, particularly from a political leader of a country built on moderation and secularist principles. These words pose a threat not only to freedom of expression in Bangladesh; but also, indirectly, to the right to life of citizens of Bangladesh, as they create two different kinds of victims.

Moreover, these words stand in sharp contrast to the calls made by UN High Commissioner of Human Rights in November 2015, which urged Bangladesh's political leaders "to consistently and unequivocally condemn this spate of vicious killings and threats against writers and publishers and anyone else who may be targeted by these takfiri groups".

These words, jointly with the inability or unwillingness of the State apparatus to provide accountability for the killings invites one to believe that freedom of expression and the ideals of secularism are seriously under risk in Bangladesh. The principle of freedom of expression, guaranteed under Article 39 of the Constitution, protects the right to communicate one's opinions and ideas without fear of violence, retaliation or censorship. Nobody should be able to kill another person for his ideas and be exempt from punishment.

Finally, it is also appalling that Sheikh Hasina has manipulated these deaths for electoral purposes, blaming the opposition parties for the killings and denying the link between these murders and radical terrorist groups present in the country such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, despite the fact that these groups have claimed responsibility for many of the attacks. It is unclear whether these statements are a consequence of wilful blindness or a desperate intent to deny the security crisis apparent in the country.

'Fear' of expression

Secular and liberal writers fear for their safety, as the Government has failed to take measures to ensure their protection. After the abovementioned statements, they even fear that the Government would use the Information Communications and Technology Act to act against them for 'hurting' religious sentiments.

It would not be the first time that the Government of the Awami League threatens freedom of expression in the country. A new law is being discussed that would criminalize the act of criticizing the war crimes trials and sentences imposed by the International Crimes Tribunal of Bangladesh, which has already executed five citizens after deeply-flawed judicial processes. Moreover, it is estimated that last year thousands of members of the opposition were arbitrarily arrested solely on the basis of their political stand, while reports of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture continue to be made.

Due to the fractured political space, state oppression and impossibility to express dissent - radicalism and polarization will continue to increase in Bangladesh. The country has been diagnosed with the disease of intolerance: intolerance from the Executive to the opposition, from the religious extremists to secular thinkers. The cause could be a Government that blames the victim and provides justification for abuses.

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