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Former Bangladesh minister jailed for anti-Hajj remarks

Abdul Latif Siddique accused of 'hurting religious sentiments'

Former Bangladesh minister jailed for anti-Hajj remarks

Bangladesh's former Posts and Telecommunications Minister Abdul Latif Siddique (in white shirt) is flanked by police officers at court after turning himself in on Tuesday in Dhaka (AFP Photo/Suvra Kanti Das)

A senior Bangladeshi politician who sparked outrage after making critical remarks about the annual Muslim Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca has been arrested and jailed in Dhaka for “hurting religious sentiments”.

Abdul Latif Siddique, 71, a former Posts and Telecommunications minister from the ruling Awami League party, surrendered to police on Tuesday.

He returned to Bangladesh on Sunday after a long trip to neighboring India.

“He surrendered to police and was produced before a court. The judge has ordered he be remanded for now,” Helal Uddin, the head of Dhaka's Dhanmondi police station said on Wednesday. No trial date has yet been set.

Siddique came under fire, mostly from Islamist groups, following remarks he made in the United States in September.

Local television aired footage of Siddique telling Bangladeshi expatriates in New York that, "I am dead against the Hajj".

"Two million people have gone to Saudi Arabia to perform the Hajj. The Hajj is a waste of manpower. Those who perform the Hajj do not have any productivity," he told the gathering.

"They [Hajj pilgrims] deduct from the economy, spend a lot of money abroad," he said.

The remarks triggered widespread protests across Bangladesh with more than 20 cases filed demanding he be prosecuted for "wounding religious sentiments".

Hefajat-e-Islam, an umbrella organization for hardline Islamic groups and linked to the country’s largest Islamic political party Jamaat-e-Islami branded him "an apostate", while some other groups demanded his execution.

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Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina later fired him from the cabinet and expelled him from the Awami League.

Siddique's detention on Tuesday came a day after Islamists, led by Hefajat, issued a 24-hour ultimatum to the government to arrest and prosecute him.

Hefajat later withdrew a threat to stage a general strike on Thursday.

“We demanded his arrest and the government has taken swift action. So, we have withdrawn our strike threat. Now, we demand his quick prosecution,” said Muhammad Jafarullah, a Hefajat spokesman.

Adam Anupom, an online activist, says Siddique’s arrest is just a knee-jerk reaction by the government.

“What Mr Siddique has said is nothing if we consider that our constitution guarantees freedom of expression,” said Anupom.

The religious sentiments of minority communities are often hurt and usually the government is not concerned about it, he pointed out.

But here “they have political interests, so they have taken the issue seriously.”

Siddique has so far refused to apologize for his comments on the Hajj — a pilgrimage he performed in 1998, according to Bangladeshi media reports.

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