[For the German Version of the article please visit the Humanistischer Pressedienst Website]
On the 25th of December of 2017, Bangladesh Police nabbed a ‘criminal’ from Shahjalal International Airport – the biggest airport in the country. It was like a Christmas gift for the masses. A ‘criminal’ got captured just before he was planning to leave the country. What a relief! Overnight he became the talk of the town. The keyboard warriors started pleading for a death penalty or at least life a lifetime imprisonment. The crime must have been serious! Indeed it was. The supposed perpetrator Asad Noor wanted freedom from religion. Moreover, he believed in some utopian idea called humanity. The worst thing is, he thought freedom of expression is not merely an expression in the constitution of Bangladesh but actually a right for everybody. Anybody can see, the height of his crimes was monumental. So, the arrest and the eventual public outcry demanding for severe punishment is probably justified.
It was only a few days since Noor had come back to Bangladesh from India due to the expiration of his visa. After receiving a plethora of death threats, in 2016 he moved India from Bangladesh. However, since his return to the country, he found things had changed only for worse. He soon realized that the only option for him to keep on breathing would be a second exodus. He decided to move to Nepal. Unfortunately, he never knew his passport was already flagged due to a case filed by one Mufti Omar Farooq on January 11, 2017. The case was filed in Amtoli, Barguna where Asad’s parents are based at. Mufti Farooq is the president of the local chapter of a fundamentalist Islamic society called Islami Andolon. As a result, when he submitted his documents to the immigration police, he was instantly arrested and taken into the custody by the immigration police.
Asad was arrested under Section 57 of the infamous Information and Communication Technology Act, 2006 of Bangladesh. The aforementioned section is similar to a Blasphemy law. According to the decisive section,
If any person deliberately publishes or transmits or causes to be published or transmitted in the website or in any other electronic form any material which is false and obscene and if anyone sees, hears or reads it having regard to all relevant circumstances, its effect is such as to influence the reader to become dishonest or corrupt, or causes to deteriorate or creates possibility to deteriorate law and order, prejudice the image of the state or person or causes to hurt or may hurt religious belief or instigate against any person or organisation, then this activity will be regarded as an offence.
As per the law, if proved, the offender will be given a jail term ranging from a minimum of 7 years up to 14 years. He or she would also be fined up to 10 Million BDT (approx 100K euro). Prior to the amendment of the law in 2013 under the present Awami League regime, the highest punishment for the so-called crime was 10 years imprisonment. Alongside with the prolonged jail time, the amendment made such ‘crime not only non-bailable.
Unfortunately, Asad Noor was not the first victim of ever increasing Islamist prone laws of the Bangladeshi government. Several other bloggers including Asad’s close friend and co-blogger Limon Fakir had also been arrested by the police under the same oppressive section. No update on Fakir is available and he is probably in some high-security prison of the country waiting for trial.
The law, however, was originally meant to suppress the dissident voices, actually became a perfect getaway for the rich and powerful. Journalists have also been arrested under the section for reporting corruption allegations or reviewing products of companies. People of the minority background has also been targeted several times by the Islamist factions with the help of the law enforcing authorities. Prior to the 2013 amendment, the police were required to ask for the permission of the relevant authorities before taking any actions. Such freedom enabled the police to act on their will without any repercussion whatsoever.
Due to the international uproar against the oppressive law, BD lawmakers have declared that they will repeal the act. The final draft of the new law known as Digital Security Ast is yet to be available online. However, in all the previous drafts punishment for defamation against religious beliefs are widely available and equally vigorous as its predecessor. Prominent Bangladeshi newspaper The Daily Star has reported that
Section 30 of the draft act says that if any person or group deliberately publishes or transmits on a website or in any other electronic form any material which creates enmity and hatred among different sections or communities or hurts communal harmony, or creates instability or anarchy or the possibility of deterioration in law and order, the activity will be regarded as a crime. Such an offence will carry a maximum punishment of five years’ imprisonment or a fine of Tk 5 lakh or both. If anyone commits the crime twice or more, he or she will face a maximum punishment of seven years in jail or a fine of Tk 10 lakh or both. Again, on section 27 of the draft law, it has been mentioned that if any person or group deliberately publishes or transmits on a website or in any other electronic form any material which hurts anyone’s religious sentiment, the activity will be considered a crime, and the offender will face a maximum jail term of five years or a fine of Tk 10 lakh or both. If any person commits the offence twice or more, he or she will face a maximum punishment of seven years’ imprisonment or a fine of Tk 20 lakh or both.
Laws and regulations are without any doubt required for any country and society. Yet, laws are the foremost way to get away with something immoral. It is the foremost way to silent the righteous voice. What Asad Noor did was indeed a crime in the eyes of Islamists and the law of the land as well. But was it indeed a crime in the moral sense? As the new draft is yet to be signed by the highest authority, Noor may end up spending the next decade of his life in jail. If such harsh verdict comes out, by no means it would illegal but would it be moral? The law of the country can barely offer any help to the 26-year-old free-thinker. It is only the international community who can both request and pressurize the Bangladeshi government to let him live a free life.
No prison can imprison a free soul. It is only the body the authorities take control of.