Bangladeshi blogger and secular activist Asaduzzaman Noor, accused of defaming Islam, has claimed that his family at Amtali Upzila of Barguna district (around 320 km south of Dhaka) is being harassed by the government for posting a Facebook video criticising alleged appropriation of a Buddhist temple.
Noor, better known by his nom de plume Asad Noor, has been in hiding — in Bangladesh and abroad — for past several years after receiving death threats from Islamist groups for defending a Buddhist monk, and 10 Minute School, a pro-LGBTQ platform. He has been charged under the Digital Security Act, 2018, for defaming Islam — an offence punishable with a jail term of up to 10 years.
When the law was implemented, Amnesty International described it as a serious threat to freedom of expression in Bangladesh.
Bloggers, social media activists, and LGBTQ rights campaigners have been repeatedly attacked in Bangladesh since 2013, when some of them organised protests demanding death penalty for those convicted of committing atrocities in the 1971 war against Pakistan.
The protests began on February 5, 2013, after a war crimes tribunal set up by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government sentenced Abdul Qader Mollah, a senior leader of the opposition party Jamaat-e-Islami, to life in prison for his collaboration with the Pakistani army in 1971.
In his history of the war, The Colonel Who Would Not Repent, journalist Salil Tripathi writes: “The charges against him (Mollah) were formidable. He was alleged to have killed 344 civilians as part of the Al-Badr militia, which worked closely with the Pakistani army…”
The Butcher of Mirpur, as Mollah was called, was being escorted to the police van after getting the life imprisonment verdict, when he turned towards his supporters and TV cameras gathered outside the courtroom, grinned, and flashed the “V for victory sign” with his fingers.
On February 15, 2013, at the height of the Shahbagh protests, which demanded death penalty for Mollah, blogger and activist Ahmed Rajib Haider, who used the nom de plume Thaba Baba, was murdered. Since then, at least seven bloggers have been murdered and two more injured in coordinated attacks, allegedly by an al Qaeda affiliate.
According to some reports, at least 30 secular activists have been killed in Bangladesh in waves of violence since then.
The attention of the international media was drawn to these atrocities after writer and Bangladesh-origin US citizen Avijit Roy was hacked to death by machete-wielding assassins at a book fair in Dhaka on February 26, 2015.
As the government failed to prevent these killings, several bloggers were forced to escape Bangladesh, and now live in exile in Europe or the US.
In London last summer, I asked exiled Bangladeshi writer — and Avijit Roy’s widow — Rafida Bonya Ahmed: “What influence do you think your writing and activism has on the politics in Bangladesh?” She promptly replied: “None.”
Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League had recently won landslide victory to the national parliament in the midst of accusations of rigging and voter suppression.
Noor, however, does not agree with this. “Of course, there is an influence,” he told me on a call from an undisclosed location. “Why else is the government trying to suppress our voices?”
He pointed to the thousands of likes and comments on his Facebook videos and said: “It is difficult for people — especially those from minority religions — to oppose the government or the Islamists in Bangladesh. However, many of them interact with me online.”
Bangladesh — which was founded as a secular country in 1971 — has accepted Islam as a state religion, while assuring minorities the freedom to practice their faiths. In reality, however, minority religions are often under attack in the country.
Noor added that while the bloggers, like Roy and Ahmed, had managed to create a secular and democratic space online with their rational arguments, the audience for dissent might have shifted to a different medium, like videos, now.
After he posted his most recent video on July 13, supporting the Buddhist monk, a protest by Islamists was held on July 17 in Chittagong demanding that Noor and the monk be hanged. The next day, several members of his family were picked up by the police in plainclothes, alleged Noor.
“My parents and my sisters have nothing to do with me,” he said. In a video he shared with me, his father can be seen telling him — in Bengali — to desist from anti-religious and anti-national activities.
Several international organisations such as Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and International Federation of Journalists have appealed to the Bangladesh government demanding that his family not be harassed. London-headquartered Humanists International has also called upon the Bangladesh government to drop all charges against Noor, which it describes as “spurious” and in “breach of his right of freedom of expression”.
Amnesty International has also called upon the Bangladeshi government to stop harassing families of Noor and other writers who have fled abroad fearing attacks at home.
Harassment of writers and dissidents is not uncommon in Bangladesh, which ranks 151 among 180 nations in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index. In its report, RSF said: “Bangladeshi journalists have been among the leading collateral victims of the tougher methods adopted by the ruling Awami League and its leader, Sheikh Hasina, the country’s prime minister since 2009. The campaign leading up to her re-election in late 2018 was accompanied by a disturbing increase in press freedom violations.”
Noor has experienced trouble at home since he began exploring the online space. “I took active part in the Shahbag Movement in 2013,” he said. “After Avijit Roy was killed in 2015, my writing and videos became more frequent.”
On December 25, 2017, he was arrested as he was flying out of Dhaka, while trying to board a Kathmandu-bound flight. He was accused of blasphemous writings under the controversial Article 57 of Information and Communication Technology Act and spent several months in jail before being released on bail in August 2018.
There were several protests against him as well as threats from radical Islamist groups. Noor was arrested again on September 11, 2018 and accused of peddling drugs. He was released in the first week of January 2019. However, his passport has been impounded by the government.
He was arrested again, this time in India, in May last year. Married to actor Beas Basu, he was in Kolkata, but without papers. He was finally released after six months and has been in hiding ever since.
“The prosecution and persecution Asad Noor has faced is sadly part of a pattern now in Bangladesh,” said Tripathi, chair, Writers in Prison Committee at PEN International. “Nothing he has said or done can be considered as threatening anyone or inciting hatred or violence towards anyone. And yet, in spite of a constitution that guarantees free speech, in spite of an outward commitment to plurality and secular values, and in spite of the tragic history of violence against bloggers, rationalists, free thinkers, and those who uphold the rights of minorities — be they religious or sexual minorities — the government has done little to protect Asad’s freedoms or to restrain those who seek to harm him.”
He added: “The fact that the government itself has used the dreadful Digital Security Act to target him makes Asad’s situation only worse. Asad deserves freedom and protection from intimidation, precisely the values on which Bangladesh was founded.”
Zobaen Sondhi, editor and founder of Nobojug, corroborated. “There is no freedom for writers in Bangladesh,” he said. “If we had freedom, I wouldn’t have to live in a foreign country.”
Sondhi, who introduced me to Noor, has lived in exile in Berlin since 2015. He added: “Bangladesh is hell now.”