New York – Human Rights First condemns this weekend’s violent protests in Bangladesh between police and Islamic hardliners in which dozens of people were killed, including law-enforcement authorities. Protesters were demanding an anti-blasphemy law that carries a death penalty sentence when they clashed with police.
“People who support a law to ban blasphemy claim to feel offended by anyone who criticizes Islam,” said Human Rights First’s Joelle Fiss. “They seek for greater tolerance and respect of religion. But violent actions are in complete contradiction to the very values of acceptance and respect.”
The demonstrations had been instigated by Allama Shah Ahmad Shafi, the leader of Hefajat-e-Islam. According to press reports, activists from Hefajat-e-Islam marched along chanting, “Atheists must be hanged.” Police claimed the number of protesters reached around 200,000.
Human Rights First notes that blasphemy laws are frequently used to stifle debate and dissent, harass rivals, and settle petty disputes among neighbors, business partners and political adversaries. Increasingly, these laws also trigger violence. It has become commonplace for mobs to gather in and around courtrooms where blasphemy cases are tried. In many cases, vigilantes are often called to arms over the loudspeakers of local mosques and stand prepared to take the law into their own hands if the court does not hand down a guilty verdict.
“You can’t instigate violence and incite to murder, all in the name of ‘tolerance for religion.’ It’s the height of hypocrisy,” observed Fiss.