Despite pressure from Islamist groups, Bangladesh's PM Sheikh Hasina has said her government will not introduce new blasphemy laws to punish bloggers. Meanwhile, rights groups demand the release of detained bloggers.
Bangladesh remains tense as Islamists continue to demand the death penalty for bloggers who they accuse of defaming Islam and insulting the Prophet Muhammad. They want the government to introduce a new blasphemy law to punish the bloggers.
Over the weekend, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Bangladesh's capital city Dhaka demanding that "atheist" bloggers be executed for defaming Islam.
The Islamists also want Islamic education to be made compulsory in schools, members of the minority Ahmadiyya sect to be declared non-Muslims, and the restoration of pledges to Allah in the constitution, which Hasina's government had done away with.
Scores of people were injured over the weekend in clashes between pro-government activists and Islamists.
Police said that around 100,000 people participated in the Islamist protests on Saturday, April 6, referred to as "the long march," which had been organized by the Islamist Hifazat-e-Islam group, which is believed to be an offshoot of country's largest Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami and is based in Chittagong in south Bangladesh.
Hifazat's long march was supported by the Khaleda Zia-led main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and also by General H. M. Ershad's Jatiya Party, a key constituent of Awami League-led ruling alliance.
"I've come here to fight for Islam," Shahidul Islam, an imam at a mosque outside of Dhaka, told the AFP news agency. "We won't allow any bloggers to defame our religion and our beloved Prophet Mohammed."
In an attempt to keep the Islamists away from Dhaka, anti-Islamist groups called a nationwide strike.
"Hifazat-e-Islam has been calling for punishment against the bloggers. But we think these bloggers are innocent. So, to save our children who are blogging, we have called the shutdown and are trying to halt the Long March," Shahriar Kabir, a leader of the groups who called the strike, told DW.
The agitation of the Islamist parties is seen by many as a counter-move to the recent protests at Dhaka's Shahbag Square by rights activists and anti-Islamists demanding vengeance against Islamist politicians accused of war crimes during the country's 1971 war of independence and a ban on Jamaat-e-Islami.
Three Islamists have so far been convicted and two of them were sentenced to death by a Bangladeshi war tribunal. At least 96 people have been killed during protests over the trials since January.
Jamaat-e-Islami and the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia say the trials are bogus and are part of a political campaign to repress opposition.
Bangladeshi Premier Sheikh Hasina said her government would take action against anyone defaming Islam. Last week, in a meeting with some Islamic scholars who sought action against the bloggers, Hasina said that her government was indeed serious about taking action against people involved in anti-Islam blogging. However, on Monday, Hasina rejected the demands of new blasphemy laws from the opposition.
"We don't have any plan to (bring in a new law). We don't need it," Hasina told the BBC in an interview. "They (the opposition) should know that existing laws are enough," she said, adding that Bangladesh was a secular democracy.
Under the existing cyber laws in Bangladesh, a person can be jailed for up to 10 years if convicted of defaming a religion on the Internet.
Four online writers have been arrested on charges of "hurting religious sentiment through their writings against Islam," among them, a winner of the DW Bobs blog awards in 2012, Asif Mohiuddin, whose blog had been among the most popular ones in Bangladesh before the government shut it down. Shortly before he was arrested, Mohiuddin wrote on his Facebook page, "It is a crime against the religion to misuse it for political purposes. That is why bloggers in Bangladesh demand that religion is separated from state - to prevent this blasphemy."
Family and friends of the detained bloggers told DW they were innocent and that their detention was arbitrary. Dr. Sanjida Parvin, wife of one of the bloggers, Mashiur Rahman Biplob, said her husband had never been politically active and that he had never criticized Islam. The blogger Camelia Kamal, a close friend of one of the four in detention, Subrata Adhikari Shuvo, said she found it unlikely that Shuvo ever wrote anything about Islam on the Internet. "He mainly published research findings on the war of independence," she told DW. And Dr. Asma Begum Lipi, the wife of the fourth blogger, Mohammad Rasel Pervez, told DW: "My husband published different analytical reports on religious topics but he never tried to provoke anyone or draw attention to himself."
One blogger and a former Bobs winner Arif Jebtik told DW it was quite possible that Islamists even framed some of the bloggers. He recently demanded Wordpress erase an anti-Islamic blog that was supposedly written by him. "It was published under my name and with my account. The blog is anti-Islamic and insults the Prophet Mohammad. I fear the blog was posted to frame and criminalize me and also give the Islamists a reason to attack me."
Reporters without Borders criticizes Dhaka for the arrest of the bloggers and demands their immediate release: "The persecution of atheist bloggers is the result of a political desire to restrict freedom of expression and reinforce censorship in the name of combating blasphemy … This is unacceptable and contrary to all the fundamental freedoms we defend."