Salute Avijit and Bonya

By: Shucheesmita Simonti.

It was perhaps the 27th or 28th of February when I first saw the news. It was extremely terrifying to hear about an American-Bangladeshi couple who had been brutally attacked at the Ekushey Book Fair by Radical Islamists. The husband, Avijit Roy, did not survive the attack. His wife, Bonya Ahmed, was in a critical condition. Their crime was simply that they were critical thinkers: they were atheists who advocated for freedom of expression and promoted scientific thinking. Avijit Roy was a well-known writer, blogger, and activist who founded Mukto-mona, an online platform for freethinkers. Bonya Ahmed is a humanist activist, blogger and author who continues to work towards their shared goals.

Avijit Roy and Rafida Bonya (courtesy: photos collected)

Thinking back to 2015, I recall many expressed their outrage on social media over this incident, people gathered to mourn. But it was not enough, the outrage was not as widespread as it should have been. In Bangladesh, many are afraid to express their opinions freely, especially on social media. After all, expressing one’s opinion has turned out to be one of the riskiest acts in Bangladesh, in fact it can cost you your life. And when it comes to issues such as atheism and LGTBQ rights, many are even afraid to express solidarity even if they empathize.

I will not propose any theories here or discuss legal conventions, but just put forward a very basic argument. Nobody deserves to lose their lives for being atheists, or otherwise. This is our basic human right- the right to live!

But it seems when it comes to the right to live, bloggers/minorities/secularists/atheists are at a high risk of losing their lives. I felt the year 2015 was one of the most terrifying ones I’ve lived through, as there were several bloggers and publishers who were attacked in 2015. The attacks kept happening- one after another bloggers were targeted and killed.

Many other bloggers were threatened and feared for their lives and fled abroad- perhaps never to return to the country that was once their own. Some of them left alone, and some managed to take their spouse and/or children. They left in a hurry and continue to struggle. It is not easy when you are forced to leave your country because your choices deprive you of your right to exist in the country that you were born in, grew up in, lived in for a long time if not your whole life!

If you don’t leave, you cannot live.
With regard to Avijit Roy, I can only say that the attackers may have succeeded in killing him, but the light of critical thinking that he tried to ignite still lives on. He may have lost his life, but his work will continue to inspire youths who want to think critically.

“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?”- Bonya Ahmed’s TedX Talk.
I would also like to express my thoughts on Bonya Ahmed, who continues to work tirelessly to achieve their shared dreams.

Rafida Bonya Ahmed giving a TEDx talk.

I listened to her TedX talk, and I have been fortunate enough to meet her in person. She is extremely brave and inspiring. The courage and motivation that she exhibits in continuing to work for causes she is passionate about, is an inspiration for not only other Bangladeshis, but activists who have been punished by the state, or attacked by the opposition, or forced to flee their homeland for expressing their thoughts. She is a living example many of us can draw strength from.

Salute Avijit and Bonya.

 

 

 


*The opinions expressed here are solely that of the writer.

Get in touch with the writer!  | E-mail : s.simonti@thehaguepeace.org

The Ekushey Book Fair :A Vehicle of Harsh Censorship

The Ekushey Book Fair is the single most important literary event in Bangladeshi culture that has a proud history going back to the Bangla language movement of 1952. The book fair had been the main congregation of authors and readers in Bangladesh, and a festival that cherished freedom of expression and diversity of opinion. However, during the recent years, the reputation of the book fair as an open literary public sphere suffered, instead of promoting free expression it has become a vehicle of harsh censorship. The latest victim was prominent Bangladeshi publication house ‘Adarsha’. Adarsha is a prominent Bangladesh publishing house which participated in The Hague Freedom Book Fair since 2017.

The reputation of the Ekushey Book Fair is on a downward spiral since 2015, when prominent author Avijit Roy was murdered just in front of the Book fair. Later that year both of his publishers were attacked. One of them, Faisal Arefin Dipan, died while Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury survived and had to leave the country. Instead of preserving the work of Avijit Roy, Bangla academy remained silent as the Ekushey Book Fair of 2016 was absent of Roy’s book. Thus the murderers of Avijit succeeded in eradicating not only his physical presence but also his works from the book fair. This was the primary reason behind the inception of The Hague Freedom Book Fair, to present Avijit’s book during the month of his favorite literary event, which opposes the crippling censorship and suppression of freedom of expression not only in Bangladesh but in countries with a similar situation.

During the last few years, we have witnessed and condemned a series of bans imposed by the Bangla Academy on books and publications. Coupled with the ongoing threats of violence against many Bangladeshi authors and the repressive censorship laws and bans. The Ekushey Book Fair Committee itself have turned the book fair in to a vehicle of repression. This year they are barring Adarsha Publication from the book fair which had been a part of this event for many years. While Bangla Academy did not give an official cause behind this ban, the “unofficial” cause cited was that the publisher Mahbubur Rahman wrote something critical against the attack on students protesting for road safety by some goons known to be part of the government affiliated student organization. It is difficult to comprehend how a social network post critical against an attack on high school student can be the cause of a publication house getting banned from a Book Fair. The supposed link between these two events, and the very purpose of the Ekushey Book Fair Committee at this moment is beyond our comprehension. We profusely condemned this decision and urge Bangla Academy to reconsider its decision and let Adarsha to participate in the book fair.

 

 

 

 

 

A Political Culture Like a Bare-Knuckle Fight – The Upcoming Bangladeshi Parliamentary Elections (Part 3 of 3)

Bangladesh until 1991 was a military regime (1). The traces of such former militarization are ever-present in society and crystallize through the need to stay in power that surges once elections take place. In 2013, a Freedom in the World report indicated that Bangladesh’s political situation was seemingly “ready to spin out of control” (1). On the one hand, issues such as corruption, lack of press freedom and poorly working checks and balances interfere with the fairness of regularly held elections (1). On the other hand, the political culture in itself is based on antagonization (2). Political conflicts are in a perpetually escalated state and are carried out not over ideological differences, but as vicious cycles of revenge and assertion (2).

While political agendas and critical topics may change, what persists is nonetheless a deep-rooted political culture that “resembles a bare-knuckle fight—bloody, vicious, without rules, and sometimes fatal.” (2)

This last of three articles (read here part 1 and part 2) on the Bangladeshi elections attempts to understand the source of this political and electoral violence by drawing on various theories of violence and reports on oppositional oppression.

 

Symbolic Image. The last bare-knuckle fight, Farnborough, Hampshire, 17th April 1860 (1951).

 

Political violence comes in various forms. One form, for instance, expresses itself in arguments on differences of opinion. Arguably, although arguments should serve the purpose of convincing one another, certain political debates at higher level are mere assertions and proclamations of opinions, meant to continue for an indefinite amount of time. Second, political violence can take the form of physical clashes. This term covers street fights, attacks on rallies, strikes, protests, sieges and others (2). Such clashes are not primarily driven by political opposition towards each other, but by internal dynamics of being united against an alienated opponent. In Bangladesh, the second form of political violence takes prominence. As Moniruzzaman observes, “institutional interaction between parties is largely overshadowed by non-institutional methods of interaction” (2). Hence, the population takes matters into its own hands, as the prospect of elites securing the country’s governance is in the stars. What follows is an assertion of persistence, often taking the form of attacking another party’s rally, which in turn is followed by a demonstration of strength by those that were attacked. To illustrate the dimensions of the physical clashes, one needs only look at the 2016 Union Parishad Election, in which electoral violence reached a record high when over one hundred people died in fights between Awami League and BNP supporters (3).

 

Theories of political violence rarely cover all aspects of case studies, and it is thus natural that Bangladesh is no exception. In fact, Bangladesh’s electoral violence rather conforms to its own logic. Most researchers assume that political violence is merely temporal, applied to defy general norms only until a certain goal has been reached, namely that of inclusion of deviant separate ideology. Violence by political parties in Bangladesh, however, is not a means leading to an end – it is the end itself.

In ideal constitutional regimes, according to Talcott Parsons, citizens and their political representatives come to a tacit agreement: As long as one side exercises restraint in its political demands, the other side will in return exercise restraint in oppressing and coercing (4). Take away some of the two ingredients for a more or less violence-free society, however, the situation becomes tricky: In Bangladesh, parties upon assuming office immediately marginalize and harass the opposition (5). This phenomenon is common to all major parties. “Former opposition parties [are] therefore quick to take revenge on their outgoing rivals virtually every time party governments changed through elections […]” (5). What results is a vicious cycle: without the above-mentioned promise of restraint, oppositional parties frequently cite repression by the ruling party as a legitimization of violence. The ruling party, scared of being repressed itself if it was to lose office, harshens its measures of oppression of the opposition, yet again providing the opposition with even more cause for violence (2). Another aspect worth investigating is that violence is usually interpreted as a danger signal. Political violence, as argued by Coser, can be seen as an “indicator of how serious the group is in pressing its claim” (6). But in Bangladesh, erupting violence is much more than that. It is the status quo, habituated in politics. It is the path political figures take if they want to be heard or taken seriously. Having become the language in which politics speak, political violence in Bangladesh is institutionalized.

Causes of violence are deep-rooted, and examining them fully is a major task of its own. However, some conclusions can be drawn on the origins of political violence based on the last fifty years of Bangladeshi history. Generally, the 1971 Liberation War against Pakistan is seen as a crucial development among researchers. After its independence, the whole of Bangladesh was under adrenaline, with large quantities of weapons floating around deprived of their original purpose. The newly founded Bangladesh quickly turned into a military regime; the first government introduced a policy that provided Members of Parliament with light machine guns. In turn, a party-internal policy led to arms being distributed to the student front of the ruling party in order to secure the public (2). The culture of armed violence is thus not just a remnant of the Liberation War that is still within society, but was actively introduced by the first government in order to build a nation (2). Of course, this explanation does not tackle the issue fully.

In early November at an election rally, the alliance Jatiya Oikyafront of which the BNP is a member turned to voters calling to “stand strong”, reminding voters that they “are the owner of the state” (7). Although such proclamations in theory reflect fundamental concepts of democracy, the Oikyafront’s speech threatened to intensify agitation and take to the street if its demands were not heard (7). The BNP’s Standing Committee Member Hossain warned: “Give us a solution or else get ready to face a movement” (7). Although early analyses of the upcoming 2018 elections gasped at their peaceful nature and reported that violence was unfolding slower than had been expected, expressions of violence are thus not at all absent.

 

Disclaimer: The author is not an expert on political violence, and the analysis thus draws on conclusions of other authors. The opinion portrayed in this article does not promise to have covered the case study perfectly in all aspects, but hopes to have given a general overview of the problematic and an introduction to the matter.

 

 

 

Sources

  • Riaz, Ali. “Bangladesh’s Failed Election.” Journal of Democracy 25(2) (2014): 119-130.
  • Moniruzzaman, Mohammed. “Party Politics and Political Violence in Bangladesh: Issues, Manifestation and Consequences.” South Asian Survey 16(1) (2009): 81-99.
  • Bangladesh braces for final round of union council elections that have left over 100 dead. Bangladesh News 24.
  • Parsons, Talcott. “Some reflections on the place of force in social process.” Sociological theory and modern society (1967): 264-96.
  • Lorch, Jasmin. “Elections in Bangladesh: Political Conflict and the Problem of Credibility.” E-International Relations (2014): 1-7.
  • Coser, Lewis. Men of Ideas: a Sociologist’s View (1965). New York: Simon & Schuster (1997).
  • Movement if talks fail. The Daily Star.
  • Image

Who is Who? The Upcoming Bangladeshi Parliamentary Elections (Part 2 of 3)

The party horizon in Bangladesh can be complicated at first sight. The landscape is dominated by parties teaming up for their campaigns to secure a two-thirds majority: The United National Alliance, the Bangladesh National Alliance, the Islamic Democratic Alliance, the Jatiya Oikyafront … (7). Overall, over one hundred and fifty parties are said to exist, each with their own somewhat unique program. The alliances tend to be led by a strong party that offers seats to smaller parties in exchange for cooperation. In the following, we will take a look at some of the major players of the upcoming December 30th elections, and consider what conclusions can be drawn from statements made on social media.
Read here part 1 of this blog series

Who is who?

The Awami League (AL)

Bangladesh Awami League - Wikipedia

The name translates to “People’s League”. Its leader is Sheikh Hasina, who assumed this position in the 1980s. In the previous elections, the party won 234 seats in the parliament (79.14% of votes), and while this result was criticized, it remained uncontested.

The Awami League is historically a strong party, with five of its leaders having assumed the position of President of Bangladesh and four that of Prime Minister. Politically, it believes in the ideology of “Bengali first”, taking an ethnic stance, and officially stands in support of secularism (1).

During its current rule, on the one hand, the AL is said to have successfully furthered its development agenda, and the international community has stated that it is pleased with the way the government is handling the Rohingya crisis (2).

On the other hand, the AL is allegedly pursuing a one-party rule, and has faced allegations of corruption. Potentially the biggest flaw in its previous rule are its harsh measures in securing alleged public safety, which include imposing media bans and applying lethal force (3). Regarding the former, the government has sharpened the restrictions on media with the 2018 “Digital Security Act”, which Human Rights organisations have harshly criticized. Regarding the latter, when the road traffic situation in the capital Dhaka deteriorated culminating in the death of two students in collisions with a bus, a minister’s reaction was interpreted as his dismissal of the deaths. Ultimately, protestors effectively “took control” of Dhaka’s traffic system in a series of protests against not only insufficient infrastructure, but the legitimacy of the government itself (4).

In regards to whether the AL is likely to secure another victory in the elections, an anonymous user on the internet forum Quora wrote:

Awami League is less corrupt than BNP. […] There might be big cases on corruption by [Awami League] government entities, […] but that is in their ancestral gene. […] They might be embezzling money but no party is truly immune to this.” “[The] average Bangladeshi has seen significant improvement in their quality of life due to infrastructure projects and the big push on IT. […] Awami League’s success can also be attributed to natural advancements in technology that they just had the foresight of adopting and the long-term period they have had to rule, learn and adapt.” “[If] we just take a look at the statistics Awami league has improved Bangladesh like no other party and every time BNP comes to power the economic growth percentage of Bangladesh decreases […] (5)

 

Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)

Bangladesh Nationalist Party - WikipediaThe BNP holds the record of being largest opposition in the history of Bangladesh. Due to its boycott of the 2014 elections, the BNP currently holds no seats in the parliament. In the 9th parliamentary election, its popularity had already decreased from holding 193 seats to just 30 (3). Politically, the BNP pursues a nationalist policy under the geographic ideology “Bangladeshi first” (1).

The BNP’s greatest weakness is the crisis surrounding the situation of its leader, Khaleda Zia. Zia served as Prime Minister in 1991-1996, and again from 2001-2006, but due to allegations of corruption was sentenced to jail first for five years, then in a recent appeal case to a increased sentence of ten years (3). The Bangladeshi constitution itself in Article 66(2)(d) states that

A person shall be disqualified for election as, or for being, a member of Parliament who has been, on conviction for a criminal offence involving moral turpitude, sentenced to imprisonment for a term of not less than two years, unless a period of five years has elapsed since his release.

Given the focus on constitutionality of the elections, it thus seems unlikely that Zia will even be eligible to run as a candidate. Further, the violent nature of the boycott of the previous elections does not serve as a basis for a convincing election campaign.

 

 

The Jatiya Party (Ershad)

Jatiya Party (Ershad) - Wikipedia

The Jatiya Party is currently represented by 34 seats in the parliament, having claimed 11.31% of the votes in the previous elections. It follows the BNP in its pursuit of “Bangladeshi first”. Its current leader Hussain Muhammed Ershad only assumed the position in 2013, but the party is historically known for having usurped state power in 1982 by a coup d’état, after which it ruled for the brief period of a year.

 

Jamaat-e-Islami (JI)

The JI is a curious case, as its loyalty is said to rotate among political orientations. Although it primarily focuses on promoting “Islam first” (1), it allied with the BNP in 2001 who pursues what is arguably a different ideology (3). In an increasingly Islamised society, the JI could indeed secure a significant amount of seats, but its history imposes serious obstacles: In Bangladesh’s Liberation War on 1971, which until day remains a topic relevant to the country’s identity, members of a militia allied with the JI fought alongside Pakistan and participated in mass atrocities involving mass murder and alleged genocide (3). The JI “continues to claim that it is innocent of any atrocities, and has never apologized”, and most ruling parties seem to have decided to ignore the issue (3).

 

What is the first prognosis?

Another user on the forum “Quora”, in responding to the question which party is likely to come first in the elections, posted the following statement:

Bangladeshi people have a record of voting alternately for Awami League and BNP since return to democracy in 1990. People don’t trust either party to govern for more than one term without trying to set up a one party state. Based on the above, the BNP is likely to win as it’s their ‘turn’. (6)

However, simply looking at social media might not give a representative portrayal of the situation on the ground. As social scientist Manuel Castells argues, “social media triggers some of the basic human emotions”, namely anger and fear, whereby the average user will primarily come across outrage (4).

 

 

 

Wind of Change? The Upcoming Bangladeshi Parliamentary Elections (Part 1 of 3)

by Alena Kahle

 

“There is a wind of change is blowing in the country’s politics.” Thus Daily Star quotes Professor Al Masud Hasanuzzaman (1). On the 30th of December 2018, Bangladesh will be voting on the 11th consecutive Parliamentary Elections of the country, and thereby determine its Prime Minister (7). The incumbent holder of that position, Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League (AL), has led the country’s Executive since 2008. But while in previous elections the months leading up to the elections have been tainted by violent political clashes, those protests that have occurred so far are not so much linked to the elections themselves. In fact, “the state of politics in the run up to the upcoming parliamentary polls looks quite different from what prevailed in 2006 and 2013” (1). In this first article on the elections, we will first consider why these elections are promising, but also why there is doubt about their constitutionality.

 

Why are these elections promising?

At least the three previous parliamentary elections are said to have been open only to the ruling party and its allies (2). The ever-deteriorating state of democracy culminated in the 10th parliamentary elections of the 5th of January 2014, in which the Awami League secured a tremendous portion of seats. During the polls, observers reported violent clashes between opposition and police, with eighteen people dying in the wake of the polls alone (2). What makes the previous elections so relevant for the current political context is, however, not its electoral violence. Rather, “[as] the largely uncontested elections drew closer, the opposition began a campaign to suppress turnout, hoping it would pressure the government to scrap the results and prepare for new elections under conditions that the [opposition] would accept” (3). In his analysis of the situation, Riaz argues that “even an AL sympathizer” would consider the victory “hollow” (2).

With the 2018 elections approaching, and although their official date has not been determined yet, it can already be observed that violent street agitation is largely absent, and that opposition parties are instead turning to dialogue with the ruling party (1). However, a first round of talks on the 1st of November on how to proceed with the elections lasted just three hours, and neither party claims to have experienced any progress. While some argue that the offer to talk “broke the ice”, others call to exercise caution in drawing conclusions, highlighting that the AL “may very well be buying time in guise of talks [or] might have agreed to a dialogue just to avoid being seen as the one closing the door on the talks.” (4).

 

Why is there doubt about the constitutionality of the elections?

As is implied in the description of the previous elections, certain rules apply considering party participation in parliamentary elections. While the exact legal provisions are quite complex, the issue can be broken down to the following: Leading up to elections, an existing government establishes an interim poll-time cabinet. As the current opposition does not have representation in the parliament due to its boycott of the previous elections, it argues that it will also be excluded from the cabinet. The opposition is thus urging the government to dissolve the government – this would lead to the establishment of a representative part-time government that would then set up an equally representative cabinet. According to the BNP, this would be the “only way” to create inclusive elections. On the other hand, the ruling Awami League argues that such measures are not necessary, but that other constitutional means can allow the cabinet to be representative (5). Overall, it is advisable for the government “to hold an inclusive general election to form the next Parliament [as] otherwise the political situation may assume the worse shape [sic]” (5).  The government is thus noticeable placing huge emphasis on the constitutionality of the elections, which political analyst Ataur Rahman sees as a move to secure public approval, as constitutionality arguably provides actors with legitimacy (5).

 

 

Sources

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/