Open Letter to the Ambassador of Bangladesh to the United States
Read PEN America’s open letter to the Bangladesh Embassy in Washington calling for charges against Shamsuzzoha Manik to be dropped. Read more about Manik’s case »
His Excellency Mohammad Ziauddin
Ambassador of Bangladesh
3510 International Drive NW
Washington, DC 20008
Dear Ambassador Ziauddin,
We, the undersigned organizations and individuals dedicated to the promotion of human rights, free expression, and freedom of belief, call for all charges against editor and publisher Shamsuzzoha Manik to be dropped, and urge the government of Bangladesh to take concrete steps to protect these essential rights for all writers, bloggers, and publishers, which are protected in the Bangladeshi constitution.
Shamsuzzoha Manik is a 74-year-old translator, editor, and publisher who was arrested almost a year ago for the publication of a book entitled Islam Bitorko (Debate on Islam). The book attracted controversy at the Ekushey Book Fair in Dhaka in February 2016 when a religious extremist group known as Khelefat Andolon (Caliphate Movement) deemed it to be offensive to Islam and threatened violent attacks unless the book was removed from the fair and the publisher, Manik, arrested. On February 15, 2016, the publishing house’s stall at the book fair was shut down and Manik was arrested. He remained in detention until October 31, 2016, when he was released on bail pending trial, which in currently ongoing.
Because he published Islam Bitorko online as well, Manik was charged under Section 57 (2) of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, which criminalizes the online publication of material which is false, obscene, likely to harm law and order, prejudices the image of the State, or hurts religious belief or advocates violence. He faces a 14-year prison term for hurting religious sentiments, although he was simply exercising rights guaranteed by Bangladesh’s constitution: freedom of conscience and speech (Article 39) and freedom of religion (Article 41). Though first passed in 2006, authorities have used the ICT Act with increasing frequency over the past few years to punish peaceful expression—since 2013, bloggers, journalists, and others writing online have been arrested for violating Article 57.
Shamsuzzoha Manik’s is not an isolated case: the issue of restrictions on freedom of expression continues at the annual Ekushey Book Fair. In November 2016, the publishing house Shrabon Prokashani was initially denied a permit for a stall at the book fair because its owner, Robin Ahsan, had protested Manik’s arrest. After public outcry against this decision, the Bangla Academy, which hosts the fair, agreed to allow Sharon Prokashani to have a stall provided they follow the book fair’s policies and not sell any books “harming religious sentiment.” And at the same book fair on February 26, 2015, Bangladeshi-American author Avijit Roy was brutally murdered, making him the first victim in a series of deadly attacks on atheist, humanist, and secular writers, bloggers, and publishers in Bangladesh over the past two years.
The impulse to blame writers for the deadly attacks and murders aimed at silencing them, and the simultaneous response to prosecute and censor those who express and disseminate dissenting views, is gravely threatening the rights to free expression and belief in Bangladesh. We are particularly alarmed at language used by high-level government officials—including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan—that casts blame on the victims of these attacks and deflects their own responsibility for the protection of free expression, fostering an environment of impunity that has been an invitation to new attacks. We understand that Bangladesh faces a rising threat from radical Islamist organizations who have murdered dozens of individuals and carried out several larger-scale deadly terrorist attacks, but responding to threats by extremist groups by prosecuting and censoring expression will only embolden extremists, not quell their influence.
The right to freedom of expression, whether in a blog, book, or peaceful protest, is a foundational freedom in a democracy that enables the realization of other rights. Every citizen must be able to speak and write freely and engage in public discourse about one’s beliefs, ideas, or convictions—without fear of punitive lawsuits, reprisal attacks by either state or nonstate actors, or government crackdowns. We therefore call on the government of Bangladesh to:
- Protect the rights of all to freely express their views, including those who discuss religion or question the government, as protected under the Constitution;
- Release immediately and/or drop charges against any individual, such as Shamsuzzoha Manik, held solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression, including anyone imprisoned for expressing or disseminating views about religion;
- Amend or repeal unduly restrictive laws, such as Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act and the Criminal Code, which includes the prohibition of insult to the religious feelings of any class of citizens (Article 295A) and which criminalizes defamation (Article 499). Such restrictions are in violation of the Constitution, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which Bangladesh is a signatory;
- Abolish all forms of censorship and allow the free dissemination of all types of publications in line with international human rights standards;
- Provide adequate police protection for publishers, writers, and readers who express dissenting views so that they are safely able to take part in the annual Ekushey Book Fair;
- Undertake thorough investigations into the recent murders of secular and atheist writers and bloggers, and ensure that the masterminds and perpetrators of all of these murders, including that of Avijit Roy, are brought to justice.