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Asia

'We should create a platform to support secular activists'

Bangladesh has seen a surge in violent attacks in recent months in which liberal and secular activists and bloggers have been targeted. Lawyer Sara Hossain tells DW it reflects a failure of the nation's justice system.

A slew of deadly attacks on atheist writers, activists and religious minorities in Bangladesh have turned the focus on the growing wedge between secularists and those wanting Islamic rule in the South Asian country.

The most recent victim of these violent assaults is the editor of transgender magazine "Rupban," which is the country's only magazine aimed at an LGBT audience.

On Saturday, April 23, a university professor in the northwestern city of Rajshahi was killed in a similar manner. Earlier this month, 28-year-old law student Nazimuddin Samad was attacked with a machete and then shot in the head. Samad was known for criticizing Islamic fundamentalism on social media.

And in 2015, at least five secular bloggers and a publisher were murdered in alleged Islamist militant attacks.

Although the list of victims is getting longer and longer, the government has so far failed to nab the perpetrators and provide a sense of security to those threatened by the extremist elements.

In a DW interview, Sara Hossain, lawyer at Bangladesh Supreme Court, says at the end of the day, the government is responsible for what is happening in Bangladesh. She also calls on the civil society to set aside religious, cultural and political differences and step up the efforts to give the victims' families the justice they deserve.

DW: A number of bloggers and activists have been killed in recent months in Bangladesh by extremists. But the government has so far failed to arrest the perpetrators. Why?

Sara Hossain: As far as the recent killings are concerned, the investigations are still ongoing. But what I would say as an ordinary citizen is that we would like get a lot more information from the investigating agencies, from the law enforcement departments, and from the politicians who are in charge of this process, to tell us what is going on.

Bangladesch Menschenrechtsaktivistin Sara Hossain

Hossain: 'We should allow is more speech, more tolerance and create a culture where we can debate each other's views and debate differences'

I think we deserve to know that, and we have a right to know that. My worry is that in Bangladesh citizens are not treated with the respect that they deserve. I think at the end of the day, accountability should be towards all citizens, so that they get the knowledge of what is happening regarding the issues of justice.

There are increasing worries about the growing barriers to free speech in the country. What should the government do to ensure freedom of expression in Bangladesh?

I think Bangladesh is not an isolated case on this front. Across the world, there is an issue over what the limits and the possibilities regarding online expression and speech are. There are concerns about security. There are threats worldwide, not just in Bangladesh, and those threats do need to be contained and one does need protection against them.

It is actually a very difficult line to draw between how much freedom to have and how much protection to have.

But I think in Bangladesh we are, in some areas, definitely erring at the wrong side of that line by having too many restrictions that are very arbitrarily and vaguely drawn, which are then applied also in a very selective fashion, often against political foes or against people who are seen to be decanting, criticizing or being satirical about public personalities, political figures, and so on.

I think what we should allow is more speech, more tolerance, and create a culture where we can debate each other's views and debate differences, whether it is a debate relating to religious practice or particular kinds of beliefs.

We have seen Bangladesh's High Court dismissing a case filed by a citizen's group to drop Islam as the state religion. Do you think the court's decision put an end to the debate over the state religion?

The constitution of Bangladesh was drafted after a very hard fought liberation war. It was drafted not only to have secularism as the basic and fundamental principal, i.e. no religion would be given any kind of political status to prohibit all forms of communalism, but also to guarantee that the freedom of thought and conscience was absolute, to guarantee the freedom of expression, though subject to some restrictions like public order, decency, morality etc. … but also to protect the right to religion. I would say that the constitution still protects the right to believe in any religion and also the right not to believe in any religion...

But that freedom exists only on paper, doesn't it?

Yes, it exists on paper, and that is a big gain. But we have to fight for it to exist in practice. The fact is that Islam was made the state religion many years after independence by a military dictator, and very unfortunately that was retained by an elected government. And now the questioning of Islam being the state religion has been rejected by the High Court after almost 20 years. It is obviously a cause of great concern to many people who believe that Bangladesh had set a very important example of how to not only have secularism on paper but try to create a secular environment in practice.

Since the beginning of the 1990's, many members of religious minorities have left the country. Do you think Islam being the state religion is to blame for that?

Yes, many minority religious groups, mainly from the Hindu community, have left Bangladesh since Islam was made the state religion. But one cannot say that they have left the country mainly because of this issue. There are other factors like land confiscations, targeted killings and so on.

What reasons did the court give for dismissing the petition?

The court rejected the petition challenging the constitutional amendment making Islam the state religion on completely technical grounds, saying that the people who had filed this petition did not really have the authority to do so.

It is difficult for me to understand why this was so because the people who brought this challenge were very eminent citizens - people who were involved in the liberation war, people who fought to make Bangladesh what it is today, and also included amongst them a number former judges of the country's Supreme Court.

So I think if they are not qualified to question significant amendments like this, which take Bangladesh away from its founding principles, I really don't know who would be.

However, let us hope that it is possible to question this issue about Islam being the state religion in the future - either it goes to appeal to the appellate division or in other petitions. I hope this story is not over yet.

You are hopeful, but when we look at the situation on the ground in Bangladesh, we see that questioning the establishment is resulting in more attacks on secularists. What can be done in this situation?

At the end of the day, the government is responsible for what is happening in Bangladesh. It's not only the responsibility of the families of the victims to seek justice. We, the civil society, should be more active. We should create a platform and stand by the families of the murdered bloggers and activists, so that they can get legal assistance. We should forget our religious, cultural and political differences and step up our efforts to give the victims' families the justice they deserve.

Sara Hossain is a human rights activist and lawyer at Bangladesh Supreme Court. She received the 'International Women of Courage' award this year.