Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

BANGLADESH: HRW Charges Gov’t Complicity in Ahmadi Persecution

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Jun 15 2005 (IPS) - Secularism and religious tolerance in Bangladesh are increasingly threatened by the government’s appeasement of extremist Muslim groups that are actively persecuting the minority Ahmadiyya community, according to a new report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) Thursday.

Because of its reliance on two Islamist parties in order to stay in power, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) has so far refused to act against the perpetrators of anti-Ahmadi violence, including attacks by mobs against Ahmadis, their shops, homes, and mosques in a number of towns across the South Asian country, according to the report.

In some cases, Ahmadis have been prevented from attending schools and earning a living. Last year, the government banned Ahmadi publications, ostensibly to protect them from persecution, according to the 45-page report, ‘Breach of Faith: Persecution of the Ahmadiyya Community in Bangladesh.’ The ban was later suspended by the country’s highest court.

"It’s a dangerous moment in Bangladesh when the government becomes complicit in religious violence," said Brad Adams, director of HRW’s Asia division. "The authorities have emboldened extremists by failing to prosecute those engaged in anti-Ahmadi violence and by banning Ahmadiyya publications."

Ahmadis, who consider themselves Muslims, number only about 150,000 in Bangladesh. They are followers of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, a late-19th century religious leader who claimed to be a prophet.

That claim has been considered heretical by orthodox Muslims who consider Mohammed to be the "final" prophet and have depicted Ahmadiyya as a British colonial creation designed to subvert Islam. As a result, in both Bangladesh and Pakistan, Ahmadis have long been a target of harassment and persecution by rightwing Muslim groups which have sought to have Ahmadi practice declared non-Muslim and illegal.

The ongoing wave of persecution in Bangladesh, according to the HRW, has a chilling precedent in Pakistan where an estimated 325 Ahmadis have been formally charged in criminal cases, including blasphemy, for professing their religion since 2000. As a result, thousands of Ahmadis have fled Pakistan to seek asylum abroad.

The new report expresses concern that a similar train of events could take place in Bangladesh, particularly if the BNP maintains its coalition with two political parties, the Jama’at-e-Islami (J.I.) and the Islami Okye Jote (IOJ), that have links with the Khatme Nabuwat (KN), an umbrella organisation of Islamist groups dedicated to the preservation of "the finality of the prophethood" of Mohammed.

The KN has been the principal inciter and organiser of attacks against Ahmadiyya communities in Bangladesh, according to the report.

One of the worst attacks took place Apr. 17 when a KN-led mob attacked members of the Ahmadiyya community in Joytidriannagar, a remote southwestern village. Witnesses reported that thousands of KN members brandishing sticks, machetes, and darts marched towards the Sundarban Bazar with a sign that they wanted to affix to the Ahmadi mosque warning Muslims not to pray there.

As the mob reached the mosque, it began throwing stones at Ahmadis who had gathered to protect the mosque, seriously injuring at least a dozen Ahmadis, including six women. Instead of preventing the incident from taking place, the police sought to contain it by taking the sign and hanging it themselves.

Unappeased, the mob then went on a three-day rampage in which they looted Ahmadi homes and beat Ahmadis with sticks.

Similarly, last October, a mob of at least 300 people linked to the KN launched an attack on the Ahmadi mosque in Brahmanbana, 75 kms northeast of Dhaka. The group threw stones at Ahmadi worshippers as they congregated for Friday prayers, broke down the doors of the mosque and attacked congregants with axes. Although 11 Ahmadis were seriously injured in the attack, the government has failed to prosecute any of the perpetrators.

The ban on Ahmadi publications was put in place in response to an upsurge of anti-Ahmadi protests and violence in late 2003 when the IOJ demanded that the government declare Ahmadis to be non-Muslim, as in Pakistan.

While the government defended the ban by saying it would reduce anti-Ahmadi agitation, such incidents have only intensified, according to the report. They have included mass anti-Ahmadi rallies, threats against members of the group, attacks on mosques, bans by local authorities on their attendance in schools, and confiscation of Ahmadiyya publications.

HRW said it was concerned that further concessions to the extreme Muslim groups will set a dangerous precedent contrary to Bangladesh’s secularist traditions and, given the already high levels of communal violence directed against other minorities, including Hindus and indigenous peoples, could unleash "an uncontrollable wave of violence."

The IOJ and JI are junior partners of a four-party coalition that together holds a slender majority over the secular Awami League. Both parties have been linked to violent attacks in connection with religious issues.

In February 2001, two top IOJ leaders were arrested in connection with the lynching of a policeman that followed a ruling by the High Court banning the issuance of fatwas. In October, 2003, a JI leader led a mob attack in Jessore in which a local Ahmadiyya leader, Mohammed Shah Alam, was killed.

Because of its importance in maintaining the BNP’s hold on power, the JI-OIJ alliance has exercised disproportionate influence in the government. The JI, for example, has been given two key ministries – Industries and Social Welfare.

"Political parties that engage in religious incitement have no place in government," said Adams. "The BNP needs to make it clear to its coalition partners that they must end all support for anti-Ahmadiyya activities or leave the government."

The report called on the government to immediately rescind its ban on Ahmadiyya publications; thoroughly investigate attacks on members of the Ahmadiyya community and prosecute the perpetrators and organizers; ensure that the police investigate all such attacks regardless of the religious background of the victim; and ensure that these investigations address the role of local political parties and leaders in their incitement.

It also called for the government to grant unfettered access to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion to investigate the persecution of the Ahmadis.

"Continued failure to act will confirm the growing impression that Bangladesh’s ruling coalition is more religiously intolerant than any government since the country’s founding," said Adams.

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