The arrest of bloggers not only fans the flames in protest-ridden Bangladesh, says expert Meenakshi Ganguli of Human Rights Watch, it also jeopardizes basic freedoms.
DW: In Bangladesh, four bloggers have recently been imprisoned. The government has accused them of inciting hate and of expressing atheist views and hurting Muslim sentiment. What does Human Rights Watch (HRW) say about the situation?
Meenakshi Ganguli: We say that everyone has the freedom to express their religious views in a peaceful manner.
Why did the government result to having them arrested?
What is going on in Bangladesh is that there is an ongoing tribunal to prosecute people accused of war crimes in 1971 when Bangladesh became independent. Now there is a group of people who are very keen to see those accused punished and hanged. Then there are others who support those who have been accused. People who are accused belong to the Jamaat-e-Islami party which is believed to have stronger support for Islam, and their supporters have been calling for stronger Islamic laws in Bangladesh, including laws against blasphemy and so on. These are laws that we actually disagree with, because we believe that everyone has the freedom to practice a religion in the way that they choose. The other group of people is not anti-Islam, but they oppose the use of religion to justify alleged war crimes. This is the political situation which is very strong and actually very volatile; nearly a hundred people have died in the protests. And the government has to try and resolve the volatility and restore law and order. But we are only saying that shutting down and arresting bloggers is not going to solve the problem, because it is not the blogs that are inciting violence, it is political leaders who are inciting violence and action should be taken against people that incite violence as opposed to those … expressing their views in social media.
What should the government do to restore order in the country?
The government muss take every step possible to restore calm, because the situation has been quite violent and volatile. But quite often what is necessary is to try and find the organizers of violence and to ensure that there are no violent protests, and ensure that the people who organize violent protests are properly prosecuted. At the same time, there has to be instruction given to Bangladeshi law enforcement agencies to ensure that they exercise restraint, because sometimes what happens is that the protesters attack police stations and policemen, which cause the police to open fire. So more people in the clashes and there are protests to that, in which more people die - it is a vicious circle.
The government must do everything it can to restore calm, but at the same time, it cannot compromise on freedom of expression. To arrest the bloggers or to shut down an opposition newspaper is in a way hurting the right of the Bangladeshi nationals to express themselves in a peaceful manner.
Human Rights Watch has said that the protests seem to have sharpened along religious lines. Could you explain what this means?
Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority country. But there are also a number of Hindus and Buddhist there. Recently, the protests have led to Hindu places of worship coming under attack by extremist Muslim groups, who in fact were not opposed to Hindus, but who were opposed to the Shahbag movement, which has nothing to do with religion. That is one situation. The other is that while most of the people in the Shahbag movement are Muslims, they believe that the former leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami party - which is more extreme - should be punished; so the supporters of the Jamaat and its leaders believe the Shahbag protesters are therefore un-Islamic. So that is why there is discord, with the Shahbag protesters being accused of being un-Islamic or atheists.
Bangladesh, according to its constitution, is a secular state. Is this status at threat?
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has reminded her people that Bangladesh is a secular state. And her party has always expressed secular beliefs. But unfortunately, there is an election coming up end of the year. And all of the political parties at that point of time try to win as much support as they can. Therefore the government is trying to appease both sides in a way by arresting the pro-Jamaat newspaper editor Mahmudur Rahman, as well as arresting people who they think have hurt Muslim sentiment. And that is not really the answer. The answer is that politics should stay out of this situation which is largely to do with freedom of expression. People should express themselves in a free manner. And there should be a peaceful discourse and debate on something that is of such importance to Bangladeshis. But it should not be based on the arrest of various people.
Meenakshi Ganguli is a Bangladesh expert at the rights organization Human Rights Watch in Mumbai, India.