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Bangladeshi Hindu activist gets 5 years for defaming Islam

No Muslim has been punished for hurting sentiments of other faiths so far, says Hindu leader
Devotees gather in front of the idol of the Hindu goddess Durga to offer prayers during the Durga Puja festival at a temple in Dhaka, Oct. 3, 2022. Activists say conservative Muslims have targeted Hindus with series of religious defamation cases in the past years.

Hindus gather to offer prayers during the Durga Puja festival at a temple in Dhaka, on Oct. 3, 2022. Activists say conservative Muslims have targeted Hindus with a series of religious defamation cases in the past few years. (Photo: Munir-uz-Zaman/AFP)

Published: May 14, 2024 11:09 AM GMT
Updated: May 15, 2024 05:56 AM GMT

A Bangladeshi court handed down five years jail to a Hindu activist who was accused of defaming Islam through a post on Facebook four years ago.

The Dhaka Cyber Tribunal judge Julfiqer Hayat on May 13 sentenced Tithi Sarkar for hurting the religious sentiments of Muslims with her post that violated the Digital Security Act (DSA).

The DSA was replaced with the Cyber Security Act 2023, which is criticized for being repressive and seen as a tool to muzzle dissent.

Sarkar, a former student of Jagannath University, a public university in the capital Dhaka, was arrested at the end of 2020 and spent 22 months in jail before securing bail.

She was accused of defaming Islam by Muslim classmates at the same university in October of that year. She was later suspended from the university.

Her membership with various organizations including Gana Odhikar Parishad, a political party, was also revoked.

Prosecutor Nazrul Islam explained that the woman would not have to serve her sentence immediately since she was given one-year probation.

Islam did not give details of what Sarkar wrote on Facebook that defamed Islam.

“She wrote a lot on social media hurting Islamic feelings,” he said.

Rights activists say the sentencing of another member of the minority Hindu group highlights the risks of oppression the community faces from religious conservatives in the Muslim-majority nation.

Muslims account for about 90 percent of more than 170 million people in Bangladesh, according to government data. Hindus make up about 8 percent and the rest belong to other faiths including Buddhism and Christianity.

While Hindus still make up the largest minority group, their numbers have dwindled from 13 percent, when Bangladesh won independence from Pakistan in 1971, to 8 percent today.

Hindu leaders allege that persecution by Muslim radicals is one of the reasons behind the decline of Hindus in Bangladesh.  

The case was filed under the Digital Security Act, often dubbed as a black law that was used by the incumbent government for silencing dissents and journalists.

Surprisingly religious defamers are always minorities, particularly Hindus, in Bangladesh, said Rana Dasgupta, secretary of minority forum, Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council.

Dasgupta, a Supreme Court lawyer, said he never heard of any Muslim being accused of defaming Hinduism and getting arrested, though radical Muslim clerics routinely badmouth Hindus and their faith.

There have been a series of attacks on the Hindu community over fabricated social media posts in the past years, but no case has seen justice yet, he regretted.

Islam, the prosecutor, said the court has 1,300 pending cases, including eight related to defaming Islam.

Since the tribunal was set up not a single case was filed for defaming other faiths, he said.

In late April, Hindu goldsmith Sanjay Rakshit, 40, was arrested after he posted two lines from a famous song by Lalon Shah, a popular 19th-century Bengali musician, philosopher and social reformer.

He was reportedly arrested on verbal complaints even before a formal case was filed. He was released on bail following an uproar from civil society groups.

In March, a High Court bench recommended the introduction of the death penalty for defaming the Quran and Prophet Mohammad.

Last February, 21-year-old Paritosh Sarkar was sentenced to 11 years and fined 30,000 taka (US$257) for defaming Islam on Facebook.

The Hindu man’s post in 2021 allegedly triggered a Muslim mob in the Pirganj area of the northern Rangpur district to attack, loot and burn down 39 houses of Hindu fishermen.

Sarkar denied the charge and alleged that his profile was hacked to make the derogatory post.

Between 2017 and 2021, at least 40 cases of hurting religious sentiments of Muslims were filed mostly against Hindu people, according to rights group, Ain O Salish Kendra (Law and Arbitration Center).

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