Bangladeshi Catholic writer gets bail in clergy defamation case

Local priest says writer has agreed not to attack the Church anymore
Bangladeshi Catholic writer gets bail in clergy defamation case

Henry Sawpon Howlader, a prominent Bangladeshi Catholic writer, is seen in this file photo. Henry was released on bail a day after church authorities in southern Barishal diocese charged him for defaming local clergy. (Photo from Henry’s Facebook account)  

A prominent Catholic writer secured bail a day after being jailed for defaming clergy in southern Bangladesh.

A court in Barishal city accepted a bail petition and ordered the release of Henry Sawpon Howlader on May 16.

Henry, 54, was arrested on May 15 under the country's Digital Security Act for writing Facebook posts and newspaper articles that allegedly defamed clergy including Bishop Lawrence Subrata Howlader of Barishal.

Father Lawrence Lecavallier Gomes filed the case on behalf of Barishal Diocese.

The arrest sparked online and street protests in Barishal and capital Dhaka. Writers, journalists and rights activists condemned the arrest and called for his immediate release.

Nurul Islam, a police official in Barishal city, said the local mayor, Serniabat Sadiq Abdullah, intervened to reach “a consensus” between the church authorities and Henry.

“The mayor intervened as he found that although the incident was solely involving the Christian community it could spill over and become a complex issue. Church officials agreed not to oppose his bail, but the case will continue,” Islam told ucanews.com.

Father Gomes, the complainant, said the Church decided to withdraw opposition to Henry’s bail petition after he promised to apologize for what he did.

“The mayor sent his representative to us and informed Henry agreed to apologize, and he promised not to attack the Church anymore, which we found acceptable,” Father Gomes told ucanews.com.

The priest also said a meeting between the mayor, Henry and the church authorities is scheduled for May 18, where they hope to reach a “solution” over the issue.

Henry and two others were subjected to the Church’s legal action for allegedly spreading “misinformation” and “baseless propaganda” against the local church via Facebook for years.

Henry was particularly charged for calling “the bishop and his priests, brothers and sisters stupid” in a news article published in newspapers in Barishal city on April 23. Several local Bengali dailies published an article with Henry’s byline that had as its headline: “When Rome burns, Bishop Subrata fiddles.”

The article was a scathing attack on Bishop Subrata and the church administration of Barishal Diocese for arranging a Bengali New Year and Easter Reunion cultural program on April 22, a day after the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka that left more than 250 dead.

On May 13, Henry told Barishal media that unknown people had threatened to kill him on several occasions since the article was published.

Concerns over the muzzling of free speech

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In a statement on May 17, New York-based Human Rights Watch expressed concerns over attempts to muzzle free speech in Bangladesh.

HRW noted that Henry and two others — Imtiaz Mahmood, a lawyer, and Abdul Kaium, a rights activist — were arrested under the country’s repressive Information and Communication Technology Act for exercising their freedom of expression.

Mahmood was arrested in Dhaka on May 15 on charges filed by police in July 2017 under the ICT Act over a Facebook post about violence in Bangladesh’s restive Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT).

The post was critical about serious allegations of human rights violations in the CHT in southeastern Bangladesh, where the military is deployed and sectarian violence between local indigenous peoples and Bengali Muslim settlers is rife.

The case accused Mahmood of spreading rumors with an “ill motive to tarnish the country’s image,” hurting “religious sentiment,” and “deteriorating the law and order.”

Kaium, an activist with Odhikar (Rights) and editor of an online news portal, was arrested on May 12 and denied bail on May 13.

An influential local madrasa teacher filed a case against Kaium accusing him of extortion under the Penal Code and spreading “false of fear inducing information” and defaming him under the Digital Security Act.

“Arresting activists, poets, and lawyers for exercising their right to free speech is straight out of the authoritarian playbook,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW, said in the statement.

“The Bangladesh government should stop locking up its critics and review the law to ensure it upholds international standards on the right to peaceful expression,” he added.

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