The week in “blasphemy” news #29

  • End Blasphemy Laws partners join massive worldwide call to action on Bangladesh blogger murders
  • Blogger murder arrests reported and “paraded”, but are they credible?
  • Pakistan: Three arrested for the crime of using the word “Prophet” on a poster while not being Muslims
  • Pakistan: Where you have to wait an extremely long time in prison to have your “blasphemy” appeal heard
  • Russia: Did activists smash sculptures by renowned Soviet artist because they reckon they’re “blasphemous”?
  • Canada: Would another new anti-hatred bill actually outlaw criticising Islamism?

Week 29 of our weekly round-ups of “blasphemy” news and views.


End Blasphemy Laws partners join massive worldwide call to action on Bangladesh blogger murders

As announced by one of our founding partners, International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) (“Huge alliance protests government response to Bangladesh blogger murders“), hundred of signatories ranging from some of the threatened and persecuted bloggers themselves, to international human rights groups and free speech campaigns, have sent a joint open letter to the Prime Minister and President of Bangladesh:

we-are-bangla-humanists-space-flag-AvaazThe letter accuses authorities of “making matters worse” after the most recent murder, of blogger Niladri Chatterjee (pen name Niloy Neel) on 7 August. First, the Inspector General of Police condemned the killings, but went on to tell bloggers, “Do not cross the limit. Do not hurt anyone’s religious belief”, and suggested that more bloggers criticisng religion and advocating humanism would be arrested under the country’s online communications laws. The sentiments were repeated by the Cabinet Committee for Law and Order, as well as the Home Minister, a stand which the open letter describes as state institutions engaging in “victim-blaming”. The police also said those named on newIslamist militant “hit lists”, including bloggers, poets and academics, should “lodge a police complaint” if they thought they were being “followed”, an approach summed up in the letter as a “grossly inadequate, highly negligent response to what is evidently a most serious and potentially fatal threat.”

What makes the letter so groundbreaking is the list of supporters. The signatories include many individual Bangladeshi atheist bloggers under threat, as well as artists, writers and academics, but also a roll-call of international atheist, humanist, and secularist bloggers (especially from the flourishing American online scene, such as PZ Myers, Hemant Mehta, Richard Carrier, Ophelia Benson). They’re joined by major freedom of expression campaign organisations (including Reporters Without Borders, Index on Censorship), as well as liberal religious groups (such as Muslims for Progressive Values, and Christian Solidarity Worldwide), Ex-Muslim “apostate” groups, and the leaders of numerous national Humanist associations under the umbrella of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU).

The letter itself explains how police and other officials have threatened to use Bangladesh’s quasi-blasphemy laws to arrest the very bloggers who remain under threat of extrajudicial murder, and the final demand is that the government should:

work decisively for legal reform to repeal Section 295A of the Penal Code and section 57 of the ICT Act of 2006, in order to bring the legal system of Bangladesh in line with the  spirit and values of freedom of expression and ‘of conscience’ as enshrined in the Constitution of Bangladesh, and as per obligations under the international human rights instruments to which Bangladesh is party.

Read the letter itself in English and in Bangla.

The action was covered in Bangladesh’s Daily Star (“Open letter urges arrest of ‘blogger-killers’“) and (“Global free speech campaigners protest against blogger killings in Bangladesh“, and in Bangla: “বাংলাদেশে ব্লগার হত্যাকাণ্ডের প্রতিবাদ জানিয়ে মুক্তমনাদের রক্ষায় কার্যকর উদ্যোগ নিতে সরকারের প্রতি আহ্বান জানিয়েছেন দেশি-বিদেশি মানবাধিকারকর্মীরা।“) and some international signatories blogged about their participation, including “Friendly Atheist” Hemant Mehta (“Atheist Activists from Around the World Call on Bangladeshi Officials to Take Action After Blogger Murders”), Ian Bushfield, Executive Director of the British Columbia Humanist Association (“British Columbians Joins Bloggers, Free Speech Campaigners, Humanist Associations, Religious and Ex-Muslim Groups to Protest Bangladeshi Blogger Murders”), Veronica Abbass at Canadian Atheist (“Joint Open Letter to Bangladeshi PM and President”) and philosopher Russell Blackford (“IHEU open letter to Prime Minister and President of Bangladesh“).

Blogger murder arrests reported and “paraded”, but are they credible?

Police also announced the arrest of three men, Tuesday, in connection with the blogger killings. They were Touhidur Rahman, 58, of dual British and Bangladeshi natinoality, and Sadek Ali and Aminul Mollick, described as “active members” of Ansarullah Bangla Team, being a militant group that appears to consist mainly of claims to have killed the bloggers in social media posts. But the IHEU urged caution, noting that “Any genuine progress is of course to be welcomed, and arrests based on good evidence should be followed by fair trials”, however:

  • the arrests since Niloy Neel’s murder are said not to relate to this case but to previous cases of the murders of Avijit Roy and Ananta Bijoy Das;

  • information on why any of these new individual arrests were made, on what evidence, how or even whether they are linked to any of the other individual arrests, is very scarce;

  • some individuals previously arrested in connection with the murders and “paraded” for the media have subsequently been released without charge;

  • no individual held in conjunction with any of the blogger murders has been convicted or even put on trial;

  • the infamous Rapid Action Battalion (which as a reputation as a government “death squad”) have variously arrested disparate individuals in connection with the murders of Ahmed Rajib Haider (only this year, though he was killed in 2013) and the case of Washiqur Raham (when two men were caught at the scene). In these cases the authorities are quick to “parade” those arrested, photographing them flanked by police figures and exhibited in the media. (The same thing was also done when bloggers were arrested for ‘hurting religious sentiments’ in 2013.) However none has come to trial. (Unlike the bloggers’ cases, which were heard within months and the four bloggers sent to jail under the country’s quasi-blasphemy laws against ‘hurting religious sentiments’.)

And indeed the Bangladesh Daily Star today contains credible sources (Touhidur Rahman’s own sister, corroborated by the National Human Rights Commission) that Touhidur was actually arrested back in May. So were they sitting on evidence since then? The question has given rise to further suspicions in Bangladesh that — whatever evidence there may or may not linking Touhidur and the co-arrested to the murders — the announcement and media parading of the suspects this week might be timed to stave off criticism following the recent fourth blogger murder this year.

Pakistan: Three arrested for the crime of using the word “Prophet” on a poster while not being Muslims

Police in Pakistan arrested three Christian men under terrorism legislation for putting up a poster, officials said this week. The supposedly terroristic poster attributed being a “Prophet” to someone who wasn’t Muhammad.

The men were arrested in the town of Gujrat, in the eastern province of Punjab, after police spotted posters marking the 20th anniversary of the death of priest Fazal Masih that referred to him using the Urdu word for prophet.

In Pakistan, the word is used only for Islamic prophets and anyone claiming to be one is liable to be charged under blasphemy laws, which can carry the death penalty.

“We have arrested three men, including the son of the priest, because they used the word prophet for the late Fazal Masih,” local police station chief Shahid Tanveer told AFP.

He said officers had summoned local Muslim clerics and elders of the Christian community to the police station to consult them on the matter.

The Christians organising the event apologised and asked forgiveness, saying they had used the word to celebrate Masih’s services to religion, but the Muslim clerics refused to accept the apology, he added.

Tanveer said that a case under anti-terrorism law had been registered against the organiser and three men had been arrested while 11 others were at large.

He did not explain why terrorism charges were brought, though the legislation is often used in sensitive and high profile cases as it gives access to a fast-track trial process.

Pakistan: Where you have to wait an extremely long time in prison to have your “blasphemy” appeal heard

Last month there was some cautious optimism on the case of Asia Bibi after her death sentence was stayed and she was given leave to appeal the conviction that has seen her languishing in jail for six years. But it soon emerged (this article is dated July 27th and we must have missed it previously) that her appeal might itself not be heard for another six years, due to the backlog of cases:

An SC [Supreme Court] official said the appeals that were granted leave in 2009 were being taken up by the court. “The petitions granted leave now might be taken up in another six years,” he told The Express Tribune.

Aftab Ahmed Bajwa, a criminal justice expert, too, said the SC’s Lahore Registry was currently taking up the appeals that were granted leave in 2007 and 2008. He said it appeared that Aasia’s appeal would not be fixed for hearing for up to six years. “She will have to wait for at least four years even if she is granted an ‘out of turn’ hearing by the court.”

And she’s not the only “blasphemy” convict awaiting an appeal hearing.

The High Court in Lahore (LHC) was yesterday set to hear the appeal on the case of one Waleeha Irfat, a 24-year-old woman accused of “blasphemy”, convicted more than three years ago, and in jail ever since. Previous hearings were re-scheduled because reportedly no lawyer would take her case. The Express Tribune reports:

On August 12, Justice Shaid Bilal Hassan had put off the hearing on her plea until August 20.

Waleeha Irfat was jailed on March 3, 2012, after an FIR was registered against her at the Factory Area police station under Section 295-B (blasphemy) of the Pakistan Penal Code.

On August 29, 2013, a seven-member medical board headed by the Health Services director general had said, “She has been found to be suffering from mood disorder (impulsive personality traits). The board is of the opinion that she needs drug treatment and psychotherapy.” The board had been formed on the court’s directive.

We cannot find word yet on the outcome of Waleeha Irfat hearing yesterday, assuming it took place.

In previous reports, advocates for the complainant blamed the delays on the jailed woman for changing lawyers, noting that no one would take her case because of “the nature of the accusations”.

Russia: Did activists smash sculptures by renowned Soviet artist because they reckon they’re “blasphemous”?

Orthodox activist Dmitry Enteo is "delusional" according to art centre. Here he is being led away by police.

Orthodox activist Dmitry Enteo is “delusional” according to art centre. Here he is being led away by police.

The collection at the Manege art centre in central Moscow is, several pieces the less, after “Orthodox” activists reportedly smashed sculptures by Vadim Sidur, in what they termed a protest against “blasphemous” art. A spokesperson for the Manege centre termed the Christian activists “delusional”.

“Several sculptures are completely smashed,” she told AFP, adding that police had come and led away the activists. The works were made of plaster and linoleum.

A police spokesman told AFP that he could “confirm the incident happened and that currently all the participants of the conflict have been taken to the station to write statements.”

… The head of the nationalist God’s Will group is a prominent conservative activist. He cites Orthodox values while picketing and heckling at arts events and protests, sometimes with a television camera crew in tow. This year he attempted to stop a gay pride rally in Moscow.
… In recent years, religious fundamentalist activists have targeted a number of exhibitions in Moscow and forced them to shut down, while organisers have been fined for inciting hatred.

Russia’s state-linked news agency, RT, seems to be the only source which claims the events are “disputed” and repeats a rather absurd conspiracy theory by “commenters online”, accusing “the organizers of the exhibition of hiring Enteo to spark a scandal and draw attention to the event, which would otherwise have remained little-known to the general Russian public.

A spokesperson for Manezh claimed that the activists smashed several precious statues by Sidur. The sect’s leader, Dmitry Tsronionov, who calls himself Dmitry Enteo, denied vandalizing the exhibits and said he only smashed “a plate from IKEA” on which one of the art objects was displayed.
… The group later explained their protest in a statement, saying the art objects displayed at Manezh are “pornographic images of Jesus Christ, dozens of blasphemous items depicting the Crucifixion, libel against Virgin Mary and the saints,” with pornographic apparently referring to Jesus loins exposed.

We couldn't immediately find an image of one Sidur's allegedly penis-bearing Jesus sculptures, but this Sidur sculpture is called Victims of Coercion

We couldn’t immediately find an image of one Sidur’s allegedly penis-bearing Jesus sculptures, but this sculpture by the artist is called “Victims of Coercion”

Canada: Would another new anti-hatred bill actually outlaw criticising Islamism?

The Quebec government has proposed Bill 59 : “An Act to enact the Act to prevent and combat hate speech and speech inciting violence and to amend various legislative provisions to better protect individuals.” Sounds okay, right? But MySecretAtheistBlog raises concerns on some of the vague language (“Quebec’s Proposed Anti-Hate Speech Bill Is Cause For Concern), which includes the

The National Post strongly criticises the proposed law, calling it “a danger to democracy”. The Post notes that Bill 59 aims at:

…censoring speech that promotes “fear of the other.” Ominously, the bill would allow the QHRC to pursue websites that in its estimation describe and denounce Islamism.

The bill takes its inspiration from recommendations made public by the QHRC in November 2014. Jacques Frémont, the commission’s president, explained that he planned to use the requested powers to sue those critical of certain ideas, “people who would write against … the Islamic religion … on a website or on a Facebook page.”

The Act’s own explanatory introduction (via this PDF) also appears to define hate speech and incitement to violence both as acts actually undertaken “that target a group of people sharing a common characteristic” but adds: “Acting in such a manner as to cause such types of speech to be engaged in or disseminated is also prohibited.” So not in fact inciting violence, but saying or doing something that prompts someone else to incite violence is inciting violence?

It appears to be exactly the sort of mistake that, on the other side of the Atlantic, the European Guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief (2013) managed to avoid making, by remarking (see the Guidelines (PDF), section II. B. 2.) that unless an expression itself constitutes incitement to hatred or violence, then the fact that it may prompt others to engage in other expressions which do incite hatred or even acts violence is no reason to criminalise the first, non-hateful expression. The Guidelines explain instead that highlighting the right of reply and discouraging the actual violence are much better options, and stress that “the right to freedom of religion or belief, as enshrined in relevant international standards, does not include the right to have a religion or a belief that is free from criticism or ridicule”.

Meanwhile, Lawyers Without Borders Canada (LWBC) submitted a written argument (“LWBC Submits a Written Argument to Saudi Arabia Supreme Court”) on 15 August 2015, to the Saudi embassy in Ottawa and to the Saudi Minister of Justice destined to the Supreme Court of Saudi Arabia. The statement:

demonstrates the failure by Saudi Arabia to respect its national and international obligations in three specific areas in this case: the right to a fair trial, the right to freedom of expression and opinion, and finally, the absolute prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. It requests the Supreme Court to draw the appropriate conclusions in the light of these shortcomings and revoke the verdict against Mr. Badawi.

Meta Data

Title: The week in “blasphemy” news #29
Date Posted: August 21, 2015
Posted By:
Category: Round-ups

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked