Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has firmly rejected demands by Islamists for a new anti-blasphemy law to punish those who speak or write against Islam.In an interview to BBC’s Dhaka correspondent Anbarasan Ethirajan, she said existing laws were sufficient to punish anyone who attempted to insult religion.
This follows the Chittagong-Dhaka long march by the little-known Hifazat-e Islam, which is observing a strike on Monday.
The marchers called for the death penalty for those guilty of blasphemy.
Hasina said: “They have demanded it. Actually, we don’t have any plan to [bring in the law]. We don’t need it. They should know that existing laws are enough.
“This country is a secular democracy. So each and every person has the right to practice their religion freely and fair. But it is not fair to hurt anybody’s religious feeling. Always we try to protect every religious sentiment.”
The Islamists have given a three-week ultimatum to the government to meet their demands, including tough punishment to those who they describe as atheist bloggers.
“We will go through all the demands and then we will see. If there is any reasonable one, we will fulfil. If it is not reasonable or not suitable for our country or society we will not accept it,” the Prime Minister said.
She also defended her government’s decision to arrest four bloggers last week on suspicion of harming religious sentiment through their work.
The arrests prompted eight blog operators to black out their websites, with liberals accusing the government of yielding to Islamist pressure.
But the Prime Minister dismissed those accusations.
“No, [it’s] not that. If anybody tried to hurt any sentiments of any religion or any religious leader, there is a law. We can take any action.”
Hasina defended the police action against those perpetrating violence.
“Security forces are law enforcing agencies, they have to protect people and people’s property. You know many police officers were killed… If police are under attack, what will they do?” Hasina said.
The Prime Minister also rejected calls by the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) to restore a neutral interim caretaker administration to oversee parliamentary polls.
The BNP has made it clear that it will not take part in any election held under the incumbent government because it says the polls will not be free or fair.
“If they don’t participate in the election, as a political party they will lose their seats,” Hasina said.
With increasing political violence and instability, there is apprehension that the government might declare a state of emergency to bring the situation under control. But the Prime Minister firmly dismissed those fears, saying the government had no plans to impose emergency rule.
On the recent arrests of four bloggers for alleged inflammatory writings on Islam, she said the arrests were not made to appease the Islamists.
Hasina said her government had already set up a committee to screen blogs, Facebook postings and other material on the Internet so that nothing is posted that hurts religious sentiments.
“If they are found guilty [of hurting religious sentiments], they must be brought to book. They have been arrested because they have written some unlawful things,” she said.
She suggested the arrests were based on evidence.
The bloggers’ arrests triggered a public outcry and many suspected the country was moving away from its secular stand.
The Prime Minister said that impression was not correct.
“…We amended our Constitution, to ensure equal rights for all our people to practise their religion.”
Hasina said: “Bangladesh Awami League always believes and supports that [people of]every religion should have their right to perform their religion… We will always ensure that.”
She also defended the ongoing war crimes trials which the Jamaat and the BNP dismiss as acts of ‘political vendetta’.
Hasina said the tribunals are trying those who had committed heinous crimes during the Liberation War.
“If they happen to be from the Opposition, we cannot help it,” she said. “They have been charged on the basis of evidence… those being tried are war criminals.”
The top brass of the Jamaat and two BNP leaders are standing trials on a raft of war crimes charges. The tribunals have already delivered verdicts against three, including two top Jamaat leaders — Abdul Quader Molla and Delwar Hossain Sayedee.
She said the trials were started because it was the ‘demand of the people’ and because the Awami League was committed to start them if elected to power. “We had made this commitment in our election manifesto in 2008 and you know the result of that election.”
“Our nation wants the trials. After they are over, we can live in peace. Only a miniscule section opposes the trials because they were involved with the occupation force.”
The Awami League chief pulled up the main Opposition BNP for ‘trying to protect the war criminals. “Why are they trying to save the war criminals’?
On the violence in recent months by the opposition, the Prime Minister said the government knew how to tackle the situation. She said Bangladesh’s economy would continue to flourish despite all hurdles.
About holding talks with the opposition, she said her doors were always open, but pointed out that it was the Opposition which was not interested.
Last month, at a rally in Manikganj, BNP chief Khaleda Zia declined the proposal for a dialogue with the government and warned of intensified agitation to oust the government.
As the standoff between the two main political parties continued, a lawyer had moved the High Court asking it to get the top BNP and Awami League leaders on the table to end the current political impasse. The court has already issued a rule asking why Hasina and Khaleda would not be ordered to start a dialogue to ensure a free and fair national election.
Hasina described the court’s decision as ‘strange’ and the petition as ‘ridiculous’ but declined further comment on grounds that the matter was sub judice.
Earlier on Sunday Awami League Joint General Secretary Mahbub-ul Alam Hanif has said that the 13 demands of Hifazat-e Islam were ‘medieval’ and will not be fulfilled. A Special Assistant to the Prime Minister, Hanif made the statement at the tri-annual meeting of Awami Swechchwashebok League in the capital’s Karwan Bazar on Sunday.
“The BNP has proven its belief in medieval ideas by extending support to Hifazat. But the people of Bangladesh will never accept these demands,” he said.
The Awami League leader claimed the main opposition was in a campaign to destroy government assets. “Khaleda Zia wants to further the agendas by her Pakistani mentors to turn the country into a Taliban state.”
About the strike called by BNP, Hanif said, “The opposition strikes are not for the people. Their shutdowns are attempts to create instability across the country.”
On Saturday, Hifazat-e Islam called a nationwide shutdown for Monday. The BNP, however, has not lent support to the strike, despite supporting the hardline group’s demands on principle.
The BNP called a 36-hour strike starting from Tuesday after Acting Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, Standing Committee member Moudud Ahmed and other senior were denied bail in several cases and sent to prison.
(Source: BBC via bdnews24.com)