Rights groups are urging Bangladeshi authorities to withdraw all charges against blogger Asad Noor, restore his passport and end harassment of his family members. Noor fled to India after multiple threats to his life.
Asad Noor, an outspoken Bangladeshi blogger, has been facing threats and intimidation from both state and non-state actors for supporting minorities and criticizing Islamic fundamentalism.
The atheist blogger crossed the Bangladesh-India border illegally on February 14, 2019, with the help of an agent after intelligence officers confiscated his passport. He has been living in India ever since.
"In my YouTube and Facebook videos, I have been criticizing Islam and Prophet Mohammad, referencing the Quran and the Hadith. At the same time, I am critical about political Islam. That's why Islamists are angry with me," Noor told DW.
"Local police frequently search our house (in Bangladesh) to try and arrest me … my family has been paying the price for my activism," he added.
In July, Noor published several video blogs protesting the persecution of Bangladesh's minority Buddhist community in Rangunia, a town in the southeastern part of the country.
A local leader of the country's ruling party Awami League (AL) sued the blogger in July 2020 under the Digital Security Act, accusing him of "hurting religious sentiments" and "running propaganda against the spirit of the liberation war."
One of Noor's video blogs featured the apparent vandalism of a Buddhist statue under construction in a Buddhist monastery in Rangunia. Noor claimed that the attackers were supported by forest officials and the local MP of the AL party because they wanted to evict the monks from the area.
After Noor published his videos, local Islamist groups protested against the blogger and accused him of damaging religious harmony between Muslims and Buddhists.
Police raided Noor's family house in Rangunia and allegedly harassed his family members while he was in India. "On the early morning of July 18, police forcefully picked up my parents as well as four other family members, and kept them in illegal detention for nearly 48 hours," Noor said.
Both the Buddhist monastery and an AL leader claim ownership over the disputed land in Rangunia.
Abu Jafar, a former official in the disputed area, told DW that the land belongs to the government and "has nothing to do with religion."
"The Buddhist monastery was built two years ago without any permission from the government. Some local political leaders also use some parts of the area without any permission," he said.
Noor said he wanted to support the area's minority Buddhist community and "save Rangunia from another Ramu incident." He referred to the September 2012 attack on a Buddhist community in the southeastern town of Ramu. A mob of Islamist fundamentalists vandalized at least four temples and set fire to dozens of homes after a photo they considered defamatory to Islam was circulated online.
Noor's stance against Bangladesh's religious fundamentalists has triggered numerous protests in the past.
Hefazat-e-Islam, a radical Islamist group in the country, has called for the blogger's arrest and the death penalty for blasphemy.
Noor was first detained in December 2017 while he was trying to travel abroad after an Islamic religious clergy sued him for creating and spreading content on social media that "hurt religious sentiments." He was then released on bail in August 2018, only to be detained again one month later by the military intelligence agency.
The blogger was eventually released mid-January 2019 and decided to leave Bangladesh and continue his online activism. Now in India, Noor still receives frequent death threats from fundamentalists.
He said some bloggers critical of religious fundamentalism in the past had been hacked to death by religious fanatics.
"Although serial killings of bloggers have stopped, it doesn't mean that Bangladesh has become a safe haven for bloggers. No one can guarantee that it will not start again," Noor said.
After living in India for over 3 months, Noor was arrested on May 19 and detained in prison for six months. He awaits bail and hopes his court appearance will be rescheduled "when the pandemic crisis ends."
"My fate might be decided then," he said.
Paris-based rights organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has urged Bangladeshi authorities to immediately withdraw all charges against Noor and return his passport. The organization ranked Bangladesh 150th out of 180 countries in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index.
Human rights NGO Amnesty International released a statement on July 21 urging Bangladeshi authorities to "stop the harassment and intimidation of the parents of Asad Noor, who have been targeted because of their son's human rights activism."
It added, "human rights defenders must be able to carry out their important work freely and without fear."