Bangladesh internet law has ″chilling effect″: UN rapporteur


An internet law in Bangladesh has had a "chilling effect" on society, the UN's Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion said Wednesday after a nine-day visit to the country, as he warned of rising religious extremism.

Under Bangladesh's Internet Act, any person who deliberately publishes material deemed to hurt religious beliefs, offend the state or damage law and order can be jailed for 14 years. The law has been used to imprison several high-profile journalists and social media users in the Muslim-majority nation in recent months.

"This law has a chilling effect on civil society organisations, human rights activists and members of religious minority communities," rapporteur Heiner Bielefeldt told reporters in the capital Dhaka. The UN rapporteur's visit came in the wake of four murders of atheist bloggers by suspected Islamic militants this year and mounting concern over shrinking press freedom and human rights abuses.

"Undoubtedly the reality in Bangladesh is extremism is on the rise," he said adding that the "politicisation" of Islam emerged as a common theme in his meetings with religious minorities, charity leaders, indigenous people and officials. The human rights expert said he had observed a worrying trend by the government towards compromising the country's secularism, possibly with the intention of appeasing religious militants.

Bangladesh is a secular state but its 160-million population is overwhelmingly Muslim. "Freedom of religion or belief does not merely protect the followers of 'classic' religions, but also those who profess other or beliefs, including agnostic or atheistic convictions," he said. Bielefeldt said that a number of official statements on the murders of online activists were "ambiguous". Authorities have vowed to hunt down the murderers -- but officials including the national police chief have also warned atheist writers "not to cross the line" when writing against Islam.

Bielefeldt will present a report on his findings to the UN Human Rights Council in 2016.

Bangladesh police last week charged five suspected Islamist militants with murder over the killing of Washiqur Rahman, an atheist blogger.    (AFP)

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