Freedom of thought, conscience and speech and freedom of religion are guaranteed as fundamental rights by Articles 39 and 41 of the Constitution respectively.
As stated by the Constitution, the state religion is Islam, however, the state must ensure equal status and equal rights to other religions. As of 2013, it was estimated that 89.1% of the population were Muslims (the majority of whom are Sunni), 10% Hindu, with the remaining 0.9% comprise Buddhists, Christians, Animists and Ahmadi Muslims and other minority religious groups.
There is a rise of religious extremism and attacks on religious minorities in the country as well as an increase in the use of controversial legal provisions by the authorities to silence criticism. Additionally, between 2013-2018, several humanists or freethinking authors, bloggers and secular publishers were attacked, many of them killed.
Chapter XV of the Penal Code provides for several criminal offenses related to religion, including defiling places of worship, interrupting services and trespass on burial grounds. Sections 295A and 298 relate to expressions “hurting religious feelings.”
Section 295A of the Penal Code states:
“Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of the citizens of Bangladesh, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.”
Section 298 of the Penal Code states:
“Whoever, with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person, utters any word or makes any sound in the hearing of that person or makes any gesture in the sight of that person or places any object in the sight of that person, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.”
The Digital Security Act (DSA), passed in 2018, also provides provisions against blasphemous expressions.
Article 28 of the Digital Security Act states:
“If any person or group intentionally or knowingly with the aim of hurting religious sentiments or values or with the intention to provoke, publish or broadcast anything by means of any website or any electronic format which hurts religious sentiment or values then such activity of that person will be considered an offence.”
The penalty under Article 28 of the Digital Security Act is a term of imprisonment not exceeding seven years or a fine, or both. A person that commits the same offense several times is subject to imprisonment for up to ten years. There are reports of the increasing use of the Digital Security Act in order to silence criticism recently. The Act has been condemned for its overbroad and vague language that restricts freedom of expression.
Article 8 of the same act grants the authorities the power to remove or block content that “hampers the nation or any part therein in terms of nations unity, financial activities, security, defense, religious values, public discipline or incites racism and hatred.”
In July 2020, police indicated that seeking to arrest human rights activist and secular blogger Asaduzzaman Noor, also known as Asad Noor, after new criminal charges were brought against him under the Digital Security Act for ‘spreading rumours’ and ‘defaming Islam’ via a Facebook video. Noor has previously been targeted under the 2013 Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, which was the predecessor to the DSA.
In January 2017, the then 25-year old was arrested at Dhaka airport and charged with defamation of religion for content he had posted on social media. Noor was briefly released on bail in August 2018 but was subsequently re-arrested after a radical Islamic organization known as Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh called for him to be imprisoned and subjected to the death penalty. He was only released from prison again in January 2019. These charges against him remain outstanding. He lives in hiding following threats to his life.
In January 2020, it was reported that the Sufi folk singer Shariat Sarker was arrested under the DSA for hurting the religious feelings of Muslims. The arrest took place after an Islamic scholar filed a complaint against Sarker, for reportedly saying that the Quran “did not prohibit the practice of music”.