Bangladesh in the Human Rights Council: Why it is Ironic – a Legal Analysis

By Alena Kahle

On Friday, October 12th 2018, Bangladesh was elected to serve on the Human Rights Council of the United Nations. Countries are frequently rotating within the Council to create a dynamic environment and engage in globally democracy. Hopes are high that the country will revise some of its behavior, and fulfil the expectations of an HRC member. However, it seems ironic that especially Bangladesh should have decision-making powers given its current domestic affairs:
Since the enactment of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act in 2006, countless journalists, reporter, editors as well as professors have been charged with the publishing of defamatory content, and have been sentenced to several years in prison. The nature of the content leading to these alleged “cyber crimes”, however, in no way appears to be defamatory at all. In fact, the comments are generally well-argued criticism on government negligence or religious extremism. Only recently in August 2018, photographer Shahidul Alam was arrested after commenting on the violent suppression of peaceful protests for road safety (2).

Bangladesh’s judicial system itself is subject to serious flaws that impede the fulfilment of both constitutional and international obligations to protect human rights. By ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on September 6, 2000, Bangladesh was obliged to strive towards and achieve an independent judiciary. Until the 1st of November 2007, however, Bangladesh’s judiciary was not officially separated from the executive (6). Panday and Mollah of the Bangladeshi University of Rajshahi published a paper on the development of the judiciary and assessed that there “was always a tendency of executive government to control the judiciary” (7). As an example, judges at Magistrate Courts, which deal with issues such as the controversial ICT Act, fall into two categories: First, there are those judges that have been appointed not based on their ability, “but by the extent to which they have served the […] political benefit of the appointing party” (7). Second, the executive additionally appoints elected public servants to serve as “administrators-cum-judges” (7). As the former, the appointed judges, can be dismissed by the President at any time if it is in the “public interest”, the livelihood of judges is not secured, whereby their independence cannot be guaranteed (6). Alam, who had been arrested on charges under the ICT Act, pleaded for bail, but a non-independent Magistrate Court refused him such a bail, making way for the conclusion that Alam as well as many other activists have not had access to a fair trial under an independent judiciary.

The ICT Act itself was passed in 2006 with the purpose to close the “digital divide” within Bangladeshi population, and to ensure access to credible information (3). However, already brief observation shows that there is a “disconnect between the government’s Digital Bangladesh policy direction and the draconian features of the ICT Act and regulations” (3). The Act’s Section 57 reads:
(1) If any person deliberately […] causes to be published […] in electronic form any material which is fake and obscene or its effect is such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it, or causes to […] prejudice the image of the State or person or causes to hurt or may hurt religious belief or instigate against any person or organization, then this activity of his will be regarded as an offence.
(2) Whoever commits offence under sub-section (1) of this section he shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to maximum 14 years and minimum 7 years […].
Despite already harsh criticism, the Act was amended on October 6, 2013 to become even stricter in what material may be published, what constitutes a cyber crime, and what measures can be taken against such crimes (4). Alam, for instance, was arrested under the revised provisions without a warrant, and cannot plead for a bail (3).
The following commentary accurately sums up what Section 57 thus means for the freedom of speech:
[It] appears that even any innocent online posting can become a cyber crime, if the authority believes that it has provoked a third person to become derailed or dishonest. In other words, the crime doesn’t depend on the offensive or illicit nature of the posted material. It depends on the readers’ or viewers’ personality and attitude. (5)
Although the Constitution under Article 39, as well as the ICCPR, guarantee Freedom of Expression, Speech and Press, both allow for restrictions to be made if these are “reasonable”. By this, the lawmakers meant to make room for situations in which the following are at risk:
• Public Order. This can be defined as “the sum of rules which ensure the functioning of society […]” (5).
• Public Safety. This can be defined as “protection against danger to the safety of persons, to their life or physical integrity or serious damage to their property” (5).
• Public Health. In situations, for instance, in which there is a severe risk for contamination with an epidemic, states may restrict their population’s freedom of assembly.

It is important to highlight that these reasons may not “be used for imposing vague or arbitrary limitations and may only be invoked when there exist adequate safeguards and effective remedies against abuse” (5). As the ICT Act seriously restricts Freedom of Speech, its purpose would have to fulfill the criteria laid out above, which it arguably does not. Critics additionally argue that the limitation of freedom of speech does not immediately mean limiting every expression of it (5). Although Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Anisul Huq claimed in May 2017 that an explanatory clause would be added to the controversial Section 57, opponents maintain that the Article cannot be revised, but has to be omitted (1).

References
(1) Shubhra Adhikary, Tuhin. “The Trap of Section 57.” The Daily Star, July 07, 2017.
(2) “Bangladesh: Photographer Shahidul Alam Denied Bail in ‘cruel Affront to Justice’.” Amnesty International UK. September 11, 2018.
(3) Hussain, Faheem, and Mashiat Mostafa. “Digital Contradictions in Bangladesh: Encouragement and Deterrence of Citizen Engagement via ICTs.” Information Technologies & International Development 12, no. 2, 47-49.
(4) “Bangladesh: Information and Communication Technology Act Draconian Assault on Free Expression.” International Commission of Jurists. November 20, 2013.
(5) Badruzzaman, Mohammad. “Controversial Issues of Section-57 of the ICT Act, 2006: A Critical Analysis and Evaluation.” IOSR Journal Of Humanities And Social Science, II, 21, no. 1, 64-68.
(6) Hossain Mollah, Awal. “Independence of Judiciary in Bangladesh: An Overview.” International Journal of Law and Management 54, no. 1, 66-69.
(7) Panday, Pranab, and Md. Awal Hossain Mollah. “The Judicial System of Bangladesh: An Overview from Historical Viewpoint.” International Journal of Law and Management 53, no. 1, 6-31.

The power politics of law enforcement: Arrest of prominent photographer Shahidul under the unlawful ICT Act

After the death of two students in a road accident in late July 2018, protests sparked in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, with tens out thousands of students not only protesting the lack of government effort to prevent thousands of road deaths a year (1), but for the government to take responsibility for more burning issues (1). The peaceful protesters, however, were met with violence – police fired tear gas at students, pro-government students launched counter-attacks, and anyone documenting the incidents was stopped by extra constitutional means (1). A sentiment is spreading among the urban population: The time has come for the Government to restore the rule of law that the Bangladeshi Constitution guarantees (2).

The forced dissolution of the protests did not serve the purpose of securing public safety. Instead, it was a manifestation of efforts to silence those who publish evidence of any kind of violence. Human rights activist Sultana Kamal assessed that the “state automatically assumes [people speaking up about human rights] are talking against the state” (3). This assumption becomes clear in the story of Shahidul Alam. Shahidul, himself a photographer, documented the protests in early August, and later in a Skype interview with Al-Jazeera commented on the excessive use of force by the police and that he had observed (4). On August 5 2018, Shahidul was surprised by thirty to thirty-five officers from the Detective Branch; as CCTV had been taped up and footage was later confiscated, the sole account of the incident originates from the security guards of the premise, who had been tied and locked up by law enforcement (5).

Shahidul was apprehended on the basis of charges under the ICT Act. The Act was passed meaning to facilitate access to credible information and to close the “digital divide” within Bangladesh, but researchers have observed a “disconnect between the government’s Digital Bangladesh policy direction and the draconian features of the ICT Act” (6). Enacted in 2006 when the judiciary in Bangladesh had not yet fully become independent from the executive (8), the Act was amended on 6 October 2013 to include stricter provisions – for instance, offences under the Act are now non-bailable, and arrests can be conducted without warrants, as was the case with Shahidul’s arrest (6). Through the 2013 revision, the minimum sentence for the defined acts is now 7 years, and can extend up to 14. Its Section 57(1) reads:

If any person deliberately […] causes to be published […] in electronic form any material which is fake and obscene or its effect is such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it, or causes to […] prejudice the image of the State or person or causes to hurt or may hurt religious belief or instigate against any person or organization, then this activity of his will be regarded as an offence.

The following commentary accurately sums up what Section 57 means for the freedom of speech in Bangladesh:

From the text of the Act it appears that even any innocent online posting can become a cyber crime […]. [The] crime doesn’t depend on the offensive or illicit nature of the posted material. It depends on the readers’ or viewers’ personality and attitude (8).

Freedom of Speech is guaranteed by Article 39 of the Bangladeshi Constitution; the right can only be restricted under clearly defined criteria which the purpose of the ICT Act does not meet (8). Freedom of Speech is also subject to Article 18 and Article 19(3) the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by Bangladesh in 2000 (9). The ICT Act is thus not only unconstitutional, but unlawful even beyond.

Detained on the basis of the unlawful ICT Act, Shahidul’s treatment equally violates his fundamental human rights. During his imprisonment, he has been tortured (UN Convention Against Torture), denied contact to his lawyer (Article 13(b) on the Right to a Fair Trial of the ICCPR) (10), and denied bail twice by a non-independent judiciary a violation of Article 14 of the ICCPR) (7).

It is a general principle of international law that states hold responsibility for their wrongdoings, and customary international law applies to Bangladesh as to that it may not invoke its internal law for treaty breaches. While the term “treaty breach” may seem quite technical, in this case it refers to serious violations of human rights. Shahidul is only one of many journalists, editors, professors and bloggers arrested on basis of the ICT Act, and the silencing of those who speak out against intolerable police brutality cannot be excused. Journalists and students are standing up for their right to be heard, and the violent suppression of both only indicates that Bangladesh’s rule of law is further deteriorating.

We stand in solidarity with Shahidul. He, as many others, does not in any way deserve the prison term of seven years he will most likely be sentenced to, under an Act that was made by politics, not the law.

 

References

Image source

#WeWantJustice

Protests led by youth are met with violence;

attempts of dissent are suppressed.

In Bangladesh, mass outrage over two teenagers killed in a road crash escalated into a social movement, with high school students stepping out on the streets, holding placards demanding for road safety and the resignation of the Shipping Minister, Shajahan Khan. Shajahan Khan’s insensitive remarks about the death of the students sparked the outrage. Road safety is a major issue of concern in Bangladesh. Research indicates that last year more than 4200 people lost their lives in road accidents in Bangladesh.

Over the past few days, several images and videos have gone viral on Facebook, which testify to the allegations of brutal violence committed by the police and the Bangladesh Chhatro League (the student wing of the Awami League). BCL has been accused of thrashing and molesting journalists. On Saturday, August 4th, mobile internet was suspended for 24 hours and many complained about a lack of connectivity. Many believe this was done to suppress the dissent, since the issue was not being covered enough by local media and subsequently protesters and supporters of the movement went online to share updates, using Hashtags and tagging international media houses’ social media accounts. Many social media influencers reported that they received thousands of emails and messages from Bangladesh. Some social media influencers, including Drew Binsky, uploaded videos expressing their solidarity and concern.

Shahidul Alam, a renowned photographer and social activist, told Al Jazeera that the movement is not solely being driven by the demand for road safety: other issues too are causing public dissent. The latest update that Shahidul Alam was detained—as reported by Dhaka Tribune—has since been shared by many people on social media. However, according to Dhaka Tribune, the police have denied these allegations. Earlier the same day, Aparajita Sangita, an online activist, was detained but released afterwards—as confirmed from her Facebook account.

We, at the Hague Peace Projects, express our solidarity with the youngsters and condemn the attempt to suppress the voices of dissent through brutal violence, arrest and the suspension of the internet. 

References:

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/08/bangladesh-officials-restrict-internet-student-protests-180805071428323.html

https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/2018/08/05/btrc-no-directive-issued-to-suspend-broadband-internet-service

https://bdnews24.com/bangladesh/2018/07/31/minister-shajahan-khan-apologises-for-insensitive-remarks-about-deaths-of-students-in-crash

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/08/bangladesh-mass-student-protests-deadly-road-accident-180802174519088.html

https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/dhaka/2018/08/05/photographer-shahidul-alam-picked-up-from-his-home

https://www.facebook.com/drewbinsky/videos/1859932040710383/

“Why me—Why not me—Why not you?”

Simple narratives can be deadly: how I recovered from a terror attack | Bonya Ahmed | TEDxExeter

At the Ekushey Book Fair, in Dhaka, 2015, Rafida Bonya Ahmed and her husband, Avijit Roy, were targeted by Islamist terrorists in a brutal attack, leaving her gravely injured and Avijit dead. The attack was not an isolated incident. In 2015, individuals branded as “atheist bloggers,” including Washiqur Rahman Babu, Niloy Chatterjee, and Ananta Bijoy Das, were targeted and killed. After Avijit Roy’s death, his publisher, Faisal Arefin Dipan, who ran Jagriti Prokashony, was hacked to death in October, 2015.

People grieve differently,” Bonya points out. As she tells us in this TEDx presentation, grappling with the complexity of the situation was at the core of her recovery. Bonya encourages others to resist simple narratives by going beyond the self and seeking an understanding of complexity. This has the potential for real change, she encourages. Religious violence is not rooted in religion,’ as some claim, it is complexly rooted in history and politics, through the corruption of power, oppression, poverty, and creeping social prejudices. Furthermore, the rise of systematic Islamization over the last few decades is not reducible to regional phenomena, it has been supported by local and Western governments.If we want a just and peaceful world, we need to resist the simple stories.We can easily accept simple narratives, or stay silent (like so many secular governments do), but we then fall prey to hate and ideological intolerances.

“Please understand our world in its rich and messy complexity; hold your politicians responsible; inform yourself, question, and deepen your understanding; and support the journalists and the people who are putting their lives on the line by helping us to make sense of this complex world—it matters. Avijit Roy was silenced, but I have a voice. Why me—Why not me—Why not you?”

 

Rafida Bonya Ahmed is a Bangladeshi-American author, humanist activist, and blogger. Bonya is the widow of Avijit Roy, a well-known writer, blogger, and activist who founded Mukto-mona. Avijit was murdered when they were attacked by Islamists during a book signing trip to Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2015. Bonya was gravely injured during the attack. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community.

References: Rafida Bonya Ahmed via Youtube and Wikipedia.

Remembering Shahzahan Bachchu

Rest in Peace

Maybe I’m No Human*

By Nirmalendu Goon, Translation by S M Maniruzzaman

 

Maybe I’m no human, humans are different;
They can walk, they can sit, and they can wander room to room
They are different; they are afraid of death, scared of snakes.
Maybe I’m no human. Then how can snakes raise no fear within me?
How can I go standing alone all day long like a tree?
How can I sing no song watching a movie?
How can I go without drinking wine with ice?
How can I pass a night without closing my eyes?
Indeed I feel strange when I think about
The way I go alive from morning to eve.,
From eve to night.
When I’m alive,
I feel strange.
When I write,
I feel strange.
When I paint,
I feel strange.

 

Maybe I’m no human;
If I were a human,
I’d have a pair of shoes of my own,
I’d have a home of my own,
I’d have a room of my own,
I’d get warmed in the embrace of my wife at night.
On the top of my belly my child would play,
my child would paint.

 

Maybe I’m no human;
Were I a human,
Why do I laugh
When I see the sky empty like my heart?

 

Maybe I’m no human
Humans are different;
They have hands, they have nose,
They have eyes like yours
Which can refract the reality
The way prisms refract light.

 

Were I a human,
I’d have scars of love on my thigh,
I’d have the sign of anger on my eye,
I’d have a mother,
I’d have a father,
I’d have a sister,
I’d have a wife who’d love me,
I’d have fear of accidents or a sudden death.

 

Maybe I’m no human; If I were a human,
I could not write poems to you,
I could not pass a night without you.
Humans are different; they are afraid of death,
They are afraid of snakes,
They flee away when they see snakes;
Whereas instead fleeing away, mistaking them as my friends
I approach them, embrace them.

 

 

Secular humanists and LGBT activists and publishers continue to be persecuted in Bangladesh for their free speech. On June 11th, 2018, Bengali poet and free thinker, Shahzahan Bachchu, was shot dead in Munshiganj district, at Kakaldi, near Dhaka. Shahzahan was a political activist, a former general secretary of the Munshiganj district unit of the Community party, an outspoken secularist, a published poet and a writer of books on humanism. He is also the founder of the Bishaka Prakashani (Star Publishers) publishing house, which specialises in poetry. Shahzahan was sitting at a tea stall in Kakaldi, his home village, when four men on motorcycles rushed at him. He was killed immediately. Shahzahan was previously at risk, living in hiding after receiving death threats from militants and fanatics, through phone calls and messages.

 

Since 2013, dozens of others, like Shahzahan, have been targeted and killed by Islamist extremists, for their secular non-Muslim views. The government has been slow to respond or condemn this violence. Since 2015, the reported murders and attacks for secular views have included the deaths of Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman, Ananto Bijoy Das, and Niloy Neel (friend of Shahzahan, who was murdered just days before him). Government officials, including the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, blame these attacks on the victims themselves, for their criticism of religion. Secularists are held by the government under the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, which has recently been expanded upon – and allegedly has been misused – for the criminal prosecution of ‘blasphemous speech’ that ‘hurts religious sentiments,’ as well as for any criticisms that are made against governmental actions or policies.

 

Along with PEN AMERICA, we support this urging of the authorities to investigate and do justice; we support this urging for no more impunity by the government. Reporting from the IHEU Freedom of Thought Report (Bangladesh chapter), the IHEU President, Andrew Copson, said:

We are devastated that the spectre of violence has returned to the freethinking community in Bangladesh. Every humanist writer and secular activist and freethinking publisher who has been killed in recent years has been a defender of the rights of others, a lover of humanity and reason and justice. Their murders stand against all these universal values. We once again call on the government of Bangladesh to root out the Jihadi networks perpetrating these crimes, and on the international community to bring pressure to bear on Bangladesh to protect and defends its humanists and human rights defenders.

 

 

Cross-posting from:

https://iheu.org/freethinking-writer-politician-shot-dead-bangladesh/

https://pen.org/press-release/murder-of-secular-publisher-and-writer-shahzahan-bachchu-an-attack-on-free-expression-in-bangladesh/  

https://www.thedailystar.net/frontpage/bangladesh-ict-act-the-trap-section-of-57-1429336 

https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/maybe-i-m-no-human/

 

Interview Parvez Part 2: Freedom of Speech in Bangladesh

This is the second part of the interview with Parvez, the coordinator of our Bangladesh project, and organiser of the Freedom Book Fair. Click here for the first part of the interview.

What is the current situation in Bangladesh related to freedom of speech?

The Bangladeshi community blog tradition is in decline for some time now. I would say that the Bangla community blog as we knew it before, is dead now. There are still many Bangla blogging platforms which are well and alive, but they do not have the same kind of priorities on public engagement. So the interactive community nature is lost. Online writers who prefers more public interaction spends more time in the Social Media, especially in Facebook. Most of these bloggers write to their personal audience. However, now there are many other emerging platforms in Bangladesh. They are not exactly blogs. I mean, the original Bangladeshi community blogs were public spheres and many different kinds of people were engaged together. Now there are more specific platforms, like certain bloggers coming together and writing on one single platform and for specific audiences. There is not much engagement between the different groups.  The only form of public debate remaining in the public spheres of Bangladesh are certain discussions. In fact, there is more propaganda than discussion and it is everyone against everyone, because there are radicals in all groups. Even among the free thinkers. I would say the current trend of online engagement provokes more conflicts than solving them.

What is the best that could happen to Bangladesh?

The best that could happen is when the country would go back to a more democratic environment. When this happens democratic values like freedom of expression will get more respect. These two are very related and in my point of view and are necessary to move into a prosperous direction. As well as I think it is important to have space for dialogues for the young people from the different groups where they can discuss freely and solve their problems. I think so, because people of older generations idolizes intolerant politics more than the youth. For example, a leader who is the head of the leading party is hailed for being uncompromising by the older generation, because they consider uncompromising attitude as a political virtue.

What do you like the most about the Netherlands in general terms?

Well, one thing I like that it is also a river delta, similarly to my home country and this country is also very green. I am also from a green country and my hometown Dhaka is also surrounded by rivers.

Is there something you do not like about the Netherlands?

I come from a place, where it rains a lot too but it is too much here.

The European countries, populations and leaders are afraid of Islamic terrorists, for example in The Netherlands, France and Germany. And there are also right wing movements in rise in all these countries. What do you think, how severe is the danger posed by terrorists and right wing movements for the population of Europe?

Islamic terrorism is dangerous obviously and there are some terrorism problems in Europe, but they are not comparable to what is going on in Syria or other Muslim countries, for example. If we talk about the terrorism threat, the western countries are the least endangered. This is proved by numbers and statistics as well. Moreover, the western airplanes are bombing different parts of the world as well. Luckily that kind of atrocity is not happening here. In comparison to the deaths and killings around the world, Europe is a very peaceful place. It is an important topic to worry about, but the western politicians made it look like more intense than it actually is here in Europe. We are living in a world which is considered globalized. It is foolish to think that the war that is raging in the middle east would not affect other parts of the world at all. Especially if the other parts are somehow engaged to these conflicts in the middle east, then it’s very likely. You are not safe even if you don’t have a stake in this war. Think about Bangladesh, we have no oil business in the middle east, Yet I would say we are more affected by this war than European countries, both economically and by the terrorism threat.

Right Wing movements are often accompanied by hate speech and Islamophobic behaviour. With the recent rise of terrorism, many common people are afraid of Muslims and the western right wing groups are feeding their fear and anger. Any comment about this phenomena?

First of all, Radical Islamism is also part of the right wing movements. Islamists are the right wings in the Muslim world. Rather not forget about that. Anyway, The main thing I want to focus in connection with the far right populism in Europe, is that it’s not a new thing here. It was not considered mainstream since the 2nd world war. But it never vanished from Europe. They were simply side-lined by the mainstream politics. Now they are back. If you look at the current world situation, there are many totalitarian, populist, right wing governments coming to power and the movements are getting more and more popular. The whole world is facing it and the whole world is also moving towards a right wing direction. For example, in Europe with the Brexit, Trump in the USA and now western Europe is afraid. So nowadays we have a global crisis, the neo capitalistic global world order is in crisis. And if you look at the history, whenever capitalism is in crisis, right wing politics emerges to mix up capitalism and right wing ideals to divert people’s angers towards imaginary enemies such as ‘jew’, ‘muslim’(which is the new jew in europe), ‘communist’, ‘atheist’, ‘infidel’, ‘crusedar’(a popular enemy invented by the extremist islamists). And they turn the state more powerful, in to a totalitarian machine that fights the crisis of capitalism using hatred and brute force. Right wing populism does not focus on the real problems. Why are people losing jobs? Why is recession? Why are people afraid? How can economic inequality be solved? They tell that minorities are taking their jobs, for example. That is what right wing populism does, it names the wrong reasons and problems. It diverts people´s anger to something else. It also protects the unequal economic structure we have to the benefit of certain people. In Bangladesh, the Islamists also have this kind of populist discourses against other minorities, like Hindus.

I think that the liberal democratic values in politics and the liberal economy are not interdependent. Even if we feel that they are interdependent, they are not. In fact, you can have a brutal regime of medieval proportion with successful capitalistic economy, like Saudi-Arabia. We can see it in the recent development in Bangladesh too. The rise of Islamists and the economic development goes together as well.

Because of the worsening situation of writers and freedom of speech in Bangladesh you organised the Freedom Book Fair. Any news about the next edition?

We have organised two Book Fairs in The Hague, but in 2018 we want to expand it more. We would like to have a book fair for seven days from the 21st February until the 27th February to cover the national mother language day and the death of Avijit Roy at the 26th February 2015. The international mother language day at the 21th February was introduced from the mother language movement in Bangladesh. We just want a bigger international book fair with more publishers of different languages bringing their books to the event. It is important to continue some discussions we started this year, for example on the situation in Turkey. In the future we also want to include more countries in the discussion.

So Avijit Roy is a very important person in connection with the event?

Yes, he is. He was a popular writer, also a popular thinker, who encouraged many young people in Bangladesh. He also encouraged me when I was younger. Also his project ‘Muktomona’ (free thinkers) encouraged many young Bangladeshi people to have a critical mind.

In connection with the book fair I want to ask what can you tell about the Bangladeshi working group of HPP?

It is still in a developed process. We are connecting to more Bangladeshi people. Moreover, the book fair helped to make connections that might lead to a South Asia working group.

To finalize this interview, lets come back to your person. What are your personal future perspectives?

I want to continue and grow as a writer. Also as an activist by being involved in organisations like HPP. I am a political animal. That’s why I like to be engaged in peace building. Politics is not always about being ready to go to war, as some would say. But the opposite, I think. Human are political animals. It’s natural for human to be political, as Aristotle would put it. Politics is a matter of living in a family, in a tribe or a city. It’s about living with others in peace. Peace building and politics are the same thing for me. And that’s why I am with the HPP.

If you want to learn more about Parvez, checkout part 1 of the interview.

Miriam Reinhardt

19.08.2017, Den Haag

 

 

Freedom Book Fair Report 2017

From 24 February to 27 February 2017, The Hague Freedom Book Fair took place in Het Nutshuis in The Hague. With the participation of 15 publishing houses and book shops from Netherlands, Bangladesh, Turkey and Somalia, the book fair attracted hundreds of people. The book fair showcased censored books from Bangladesh and Turkey, books on censorship in different countries written by persecuted and censored writers themselves, and other regular books. Click here to read the report of the Freedom Book Fair 2017.

During the four days of the book fair, we also held four different panel discussions related to freedom of expression, one Somali and one Bengali poetry night. On 26 February, we also commemorated Avijit Roy (it was the anniversary of his death), along with other Bangladeshi bloggers, writers and publishers who were murdered in recent years. The panel discussions were about freedom of expression in Bangladesh and Turkey, the contemporary debate regarding freedom of expression and hate speech and LGBT freedom in religious societies. Experts from
Bangladesh, Turkey, Netherlands, UK and USA were present as panelists in these discussions. More than 500 people physically attended the discussions, and we were able to reach an audience of more than 90 thousand people via Facebook livestream.

The book fair successfully brought together diverse group of individuals, publishers and organizations to address the recent global crisis of freedom of expression. The event can be considered as laying down the foundation of a crucial network that can uphold and promote a dialogical method in solving the crisis of freedom of expression in the current world.

Interview with Parvez Alam – Part 1

Dear Parvez, could you first introduce yourself to the audience?

Photo credit Baki Billah

Photo credit Baki Billah

I am from Bangladesh. I am a writer and activist. In Bangladesh, I have been writing regularly in different blogs, newspapers, magazines and I wrote a few books. Most of them are about history of knowledge and more specifically about the intellectual history of Islam and also the political history of Islam. I have been working with several non-governmental organisations and activist groups in Bangladesh. We had a community library there, where I worked for 9 years. As well I was working with several human right groups focussing on minority rights mostly. I came to the Netherlands during 2015.; I had to flee my country because I was seriously threatened because of my writings, like many other critical thinkers from Bangladesh.

How did you get involved in The Hague Peace Projects?

When I came here I came into a project of the NGO Justice and Peace. A friend of mine worked for the NGO and for HPP at this time and we have spent a lot of time together because she was really interested in Bangladeshi bloggers in exile in Europe. So, I connect her with some Bangladeshi bloggers and together we developed the idea of the book fair for HPP and I was involved for the first time in a HPP project in February 2016 when the first book fair took place. In Bangladesh, there is an annual book fair in February as well, but many writers and publishers can´t be there as now they are in exile. In 2016 there was the chance that Avijit Roy’s (who was murdered a year before in front of the book fair) book so we wanted to do a symbolic book fair in The Hague. It was kind of a protest against the attacks, censorship, book bans and exile of publishers or writers. Another intention was to bring the exile writers of Bangladesh together. And from September 2016 I am working more intensively together with the HPP.

How would you describe the development from the first book fair in 2016 to the second in 2017?

When I look back I can say that the development was enormous. In 2016 we have had a half day of book fair without selling any books. Only couple of publishing house was officially involved, and we just displayed some banned books and also books written by Avijit. We had one panel discussion. It was a start and this year we planned everything for months. The result was a book fair with several publishers being present, from and for different countries like Bangladesh, Somalia, Turkey and Netherlands. Moreover, we had several events, books were sold and it lasted for 4 days.

Did you promote the opening for other countries where writers are banned as well?

Yes, I did. The expansion was one of the first things we decided during the planning process, because the situation in Bangladesh is not unique. It is connected to developments in other countries as well. The rise of censorship and the decline of freedom of expression are similar to many other parts of the world. We thought we should bring more countries, more publishers together and have discussions about freedom of expression. Maybe this can be the foundation concept for future book fairs in The Hague, city of Peace and Justice.

The Interview is continued in Part 2 with some more information about the coming book fair and Parvez´s political opinions.

Parvez was interviewed by Miriam Reinhardt.

16-8 Film & Discussion: Rampal Coal plant: a deception of development

Join us on Wednesday 16 August for a film and discussion about Bangladesh at Nutshuis from 6:30 till 8:30.

The world’s largest mangrove forest is under treat of coal mining. The Bangladesh India Friendship Power Company (BIFPC), an energy partnership between India and Bangladesh, is building a massive coal fired power plant called ‘The Rampal Rampal Power Plant’ just 14km from this UNESCO world heritage site – a home to the last populations of critically endangered Royal Bengal Tigers. By damaging the Sundurbans with a coal plant, not only would this take away their livelihoods, and the natural resilience that millions of people in Bangladesh depend on, but it would mean burning more fossil fuels and creating more carbon emissions. This is exactly when the world should be leaving fossil fuels in the ground and be getting behind renewable energy alternatives.

Discussion:
Pro-environment activists group in Bangladesh have been protesting the coal power plant since its inception. Activists from India and other parts of the world also have joined in protest and solidarity. UNESCO also expressed its concern and asked the Government of Bangladesh to halt the project. However, despite nationwide protests and international outcry, the Bangladeshi government is hellbent on going through the project. Police brutality and arrest have become part and parcel of the anti-Rampal Power Plant movement in Bangladesh, and leading activists have faced death threats.

Anu Muhammad, the member-secretary of NCBD (the organization leading the anti-rampal protests in Banlgadesh) will join us in a discussion in ‘Het Nutshuis’ in The Hague. Anu Muhammad is a prominent Bangladeshi economist, public intellectual and political acticvist who has been in the forefront of the green energy movement in Bangladesh for years. He had faced arrest, police violance and several death threats along the way. Also activists and experts from both Bangladesh and Netherlands will join this discussion.

Deception of Development:
Bangladesh has entered a critical stage of its development in which the vocabulary around the understanding of development has gone seriously problematic. The Bangladesh state and the media both have gradually separated the idea of social and environmental equity from the vision of development, just like many other parts of the world. While the state continues to be obsessed with high-profile big development projects, farmers, laborers, poor communities, rivers, trees, forests, cultivable fertile land in this process, are perceived to be mere bunch of collateral damage that is expected to be ‘sacrificed’ in this very process towards ‘progress’. The state and the media has been displaying an one track obsession over high GDP growth as the standard of progress. The health of people, cleanness of water, fertility of soil, the quality of food and air are not considered to be worthy enough to be a part of the index of development. In the backdrop of such flawed understanding of development and such disregard towards preservation of environmental resources, it has become necessary to challenge the so called idea of development that does not perceive it necessary to preserve environmental and human integrity. ‘Deception of Development’ is an attempt of as such.

Report: Voices of Dissent: Persecuted Non-Religiosity and Threatened Religious Diversity in Bangladesh

On Sunday 26th February 2017, The Hague Peace Projects, held a discussion titled “the Voices of Dissent; Persecuted Non-Religiosity and Threatened Religious Diversity in Bangladesh”, as part of the Hague Freedom Book Fair in Het Nutshuis in Den Haag.  The event was well attended with over 60 participants.

The event began with a documentary from Frontline Defenders titled Victim Blaming, Bangladesh’s Failure to Protect Human Rights Defenders. This short film was a comprehensive introduction into the difficulties surrounding freedom of expression in Bangladesh. The panel featured Bob Churchill, the Director of Communications for the International Humanist and Ethical Union. Bob has had a long-standing interest in secularism, humanism, ethics and epistemology. He previously worked at both the British Humanist Association and Ugandan Humanist Association. Caroline Suransky, who is a board member of the organization Humanistisch Verbond, and professor at the Universiteit Voor Humanistiek. Caroline was previously also a board member for the Foundation for Humanist Education Formation. Her interests lie in strengthening inter connections between partners in the Humanist Alliance. Her time in South Africa formed her world views regarding the personal and political side of ‘human dignity’ and ‘living a humane life’ in a world with differences and inequalities. Olof Blomqvist, who works for Amnesty International as a researcher on Bangladesh and the Maldives. He was previously a press officer for the Asia Pacific region, has worked in Afghanistan for Amnesty International, worked for Doctors Without Borders and The International Crisis Group. Our final panelist Erin Kilbride is a journalist, human rights activist and media coordinator at Front Line Defenders. She works with HRDs to create protection strategies utilizing digital print and film projects. She was previously a gender and juvenile justice researcher in Bahrain, the Gulf & Yemen, Editor at Muftah.org alongside a community organizer with the Iraqi refugee population in the US.

The discussion began with Bob calling upon Bangladeshi bloggers Parvez Alam, Asif Muhudin and Nastikaer Dhormokotha sharing their personal accounts of their struggles with freedom of expression in Bangladesh. Parvez spoke of living low profile and described the increased victim blaming from both the police and government. He explained that the civil society in Bangladesh is failing to unite together against censorship due to deep ideological differences. The situation is unlikely to change for the public until adequate laws are put into place by the judiciary. He urged that there should be increased dialogue to protect the freedom of expression. Asif explained he was one of the first bloggers to be attacked in 2013 and stabbed nine times in the shoulders and back. He was punished for blasphemy by the government for his blog and was imprisoned for three and a half months. Whilst in prison, he had the strange experience of meeting his attackers and soon came to the realization that they were victims of Islamic extremism. His attackers had in fact never read his blogs and acted solely upon the word of their religious leader who told them Asif was anti-Islam. He is still suffering from psychological damage alongside pain in his shoulder. Finally Nastiker spoke of maintaining a very low profile, which involved discontinuing his writing and controlling his movements, as he was aware his name was on the hit list. His panic escalated with every murder he read about, to the point he was scared to leave his house alone. When he heard of Neeloy Neel’s murder, he decided to leave the country. He first moved to Myanmar and then the Netherlands. He described how his trauma is still prevalent, as when he sees large groups of people he still gets nervous. He felt it was vital to explain that he does not categorize Muslims as terrorists as he believes they have been subject to Islamic fundamentalism and are victim themselves. He expressed concern for the numerous Bangladeshi bloggers who have currently fled the country and are in limbo, with no idea of what their future hold with ever decreasing aid from NGO’s. He believes the international community’s attention should be focused on helping these people.

Consequently the panel discussion began with the panelists introducing themselves. The three main topics of discussion were the ICT Prosecutions Act, the phenomena of rising extremism and suggestions on how NGO’s and the international community could do more to put pressure on domestic and international governments on the blogger issue. The ICT Prosecutions Act was explained to be passed by the BNP government in Bangladesh and a text book example of how repressive law works. It was described to have very strange and vague wording about hurting religious sentiments and could be interpreted by anyone to mean anything. It has been used on numerous journalists, civil society activists and even a case where citizens were sharing songs, which were perceived to be anti Islamic and thus ended up in jail for seven years under this act. Initially it was very rarely used but recently its use has sky rocketed. Over the last year there has been some acknowledgment for the need for change regarding this act. The government is considering replacement of this act with a new digital security act, however this is perceived by the international community to have even worse implications than the current act. The panel suggested that the solution would be to push the Bangladeshi government to make a law that meets international standards.

The link between different extremist nationalism was broken down to into two questions, reasons and explanations for what is happening worldwide and why there is more political repression within civil society. The panel explained that reason behind the increasing repression by the authoritarian regimes worldwide is partly due to globalization. Governments fear the bloggers because of their wide readership, national and international connections. To the Government, bloggers are consequently undermining their own national agendas. It would be interesting for the international community to think about the consequences of such actions against activism and the media in their own countries. Erin also spoke of the over simplification of what it means to be an atheist in the Bangladeshi context. She explained that the very strong intellectual and rational rights based justifications that writers are presenting have been largely ignored. The notion of being an atheist or a human rights activist has been blurred into one category, when they should remain separate. She mentioned how the ICT Act is the clearest example in which we can call out the hypocrisy of the Bangladeshi government, as they state they want to eradicate extremist groups however is implementing legislation with the exact stated objectives of extremist groups, resulting in restricted open spaces for persecuted religious minorities.

The discussion ended with the moderator asking the panel for suggestions on how NGOs and the international community could do more to put pressure on Bangladeshi and international governments to protect freedom of expression in Bangladesh. The panelists were united in suggesting that the removal of the ICT Act is necessary, which they believe has criminalized the freedom of expression in Bangladesh. Additionally it was suggested that NGO’s and western governments could do more to promote and further support Bangladeshi activists and the citizens of Bangladesh. Finally it was highlighted that the relation between Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia needs to be addressed as it is having a ripple effect on the crackdown of human rights activists in Bangladesh.

Photo’s: Ugo Boss Photography ©