But arrest of Shahbagh bloggers condemned as attack on free speech

In response to the violent campaign, carried out to force the government to give up on its war crimes trial, it has decided to launch a massive combing operation to nab the militant activists of Jamaat-e-Islami and its students’ wing, Islami Chatra Shibir. A number of newspapers, including the leading The Daily Star, quoting Home Minister Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir, said the joint force comprising police; Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB); the elite anti-crime Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and paramilitary Bangladesh Ansar “are fully prepared to begin the operation”.

Police accounts say that at least 77 people, including eight policemen, have been killed and hundreds, among them 300 law enforcers, badly injured as a result of the violence that followed the verdict of the war crimes tribunal on February 28, sentencing Jamaat leader Abdul Quader Mollah to life imprisonment. Most of the attacks took place in northern and western districts of Bangladesh, where the Islamist party has a strong support base.

Bloggers arrested

In an action that has rather confused the Shahbagh Gonojagoron Mancho organisers, police have arrested three bloggers in Dhaka on charges of placing “derogatory comments about Islam and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)” on the internet. The move, which drew immediate flak from people across the board, came close on the heels of a campaign by radical Islamist groups against the Shahbagh movement.

Radical Islamists, with support from the main opposition BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami, have threatened to carry out a April 6 “long march” towards Dhaka, demanding punishment for what they call the “atheist bloggers”. However, the arrests could not appease Hefajat-e Islam which, together with other radical Islamist groups, has been campaigning against the Shahbagh protesters.

The news of the arrests sparked strong criticism against the government on the social media, with bloggers, rights groups and online and political activists describing it as “an attack on freedom of speech and an insult to democracy”. The Law Minister, Shafiq Ahmed, said at a press conference on Wednesday that the government has decided to set up two cyber crimes tribunals in Dhaka and Chittagong to try those accused of these offences. The Gonojagoron Mancha bloggers and activists of the Shahbagh campaign claimed that the arrestees were involved with their movement.

On March 31, a group of clerics submitted to the government a list of bloggers who they thought were involved in writing derogatory comments about religion. Earlier, the government had asked the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission to set up a monitoring cell for blocking instantly the blogs that carry derogatory contents about Islam and the Prophet.