The Associated Press has filed a lengthy report on the Russian government’s growing crackdown on freedom of expression:
As the Kremlin claims unequivocal support among Russians for its policies both at home and abroad, a crackdown is underway against ordinary social media users who post things that run against the official narrative. Here the Kremlin’s interests coincide with those of investigators, who are anxious to report high conviction rates for extremism. The Kremlin didn’t immediately comment on the issue.
At least 54 people were sent to prison for hate speech last year, most of them for sharing and posting things online, which is almost five times as many as five years ago, according to the Moscow-based Sova group, which studies human rights, nationalism and xenophobia in Russia. The overall number of convictions for hate speech in Russia increased to 233 last year from 92 in 2010.
A 2002 Russian law defines extremism as activities that aim to undermine the nation’s security or constitutional order, or glorify terrorism or racism, as well as calling for others to do so. The vagueness of the phrasing and the scope of offenses that fall under the extremism clause allow for the prosecution of a wide range of people, from those who set up an extremist cell or display Nazi symbols to anyone who writes something online that could be deemed a danger to the state. In the end, it’s up to the court to decide whether a social media post poses a danger to the nation or not.
You can read the full report here.
At least four people were killed in central Nigeria this week in violence over an alleged blasphemy by a Christian trader against the Prophet Mohammed, according to news reports. The Agence France-Presse reports based on resident testimony:
Abdullahi Sallau said a Muslim mob killed one person on Sunday and three on Monday in the town of Pandogari in Niger state “following blasphemous remarks by a Christian against the Prophet”.
One of those killed was Methodus Chimaije Emmanuel, the 24-year-old who posted comments on his Facebook page, said Sallau, who lives in the town. His account was supported by another local.
Emmanuel, whose parents were from Nigeria’s mainly Christian south but who was born and raised in Pandogari, had gone into hiding following the post but was found.
“The crowd took the law into their hands and mobbed him to death despite the revulsion expressed by his parents over the online comments,” said Misbahu Malami, who lives locally.
Writing in the Daily Times, Nasir Saeed details the disturbing oppression of Christian in Paskistan, calling on the government of Pakistan, politicians, the judiciary, and religious leaders to” take responsibility to stop vigilante justice and the ongoing misuse of the blasphemy law”:
Unfortunately, Christians are under a constant threat because of continuous misuse of the blasphemy law against them. Over a petty dispute anyone can accuse another person of blasphemy, without thinking of consequences that are often devastating. We have seen several dreadful instances of this in the past. There is a long list of such atrocities, but to mention a few there are a few that stand out in their enormity of the injustice that was done to Christians. Never can be forgotten the horror of Sanglahill, Joseph colony, Korian and Gojra, where apart from destruction of churches and houses, eight Christians, including children, were burnt alive. Who can forget the Christian couple Shama and Shahzad who in 2015 were killed and then burnt in a brick kiln furnace over unproven charges of blasphemy?
There has been no evidence in any case that anyone had actually committed blasphemy. Nobody has ever been questioned with regard to making false blasphemy claims. This not only encourages the perpetrators but also strengthens their belief that their faith permits them to ‘avenge’ blasphemy, that it is according to the teachings of Islam, and they are not committing any crime. Instead they see it as if they have performed their moral and religious duty in an Islamic state.
The blasphemy laws are written ambiguously and vaguely, and it is not clear what is considered blasphemous, and who will determine whether blasphemy has been committed or not. There is also a need to understand whether blasphemy — if the accusation is proven to be correct — has been committed inadvertently or intentionally. But unfortunately no such measures are ever taken into consideration even though they are important for a fair trial and for justice to be done. People have their own standards to consider blasphemy, and it could be anything that ‘offends’ the accuser. There are also several sections of the blasphemy law, and each section has a different penalty, but because of government’s lack of interest, people have taken the ‘duty of protecting religion’ upon themselves, and they have just one punishment for all offences: the death penalty. If the accused is caught by the so-called vigilantes of religion justice will be done there and then. And that happens despite the Supreme Court’s judgement that nobody has the authority to assume the role of a judge, jury and executioner in a case in which someone is accused of blasphemy.
You can read the full article here.
Robert P. George, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), and Hannah Rosenthal, a USCIRF commissioner, have penned an op-ed for the USA Today detailing various examples of state persecution of atheists and calling on countries to stop criminalizing the act of denying the existence of God:
In the Russian city of Stavropol, Viktor Krasnov, a 38-year-old man, faces trial, charged with publicly insulting Orthodox Church believers by supporting atheism in social media. For proclaiming in a heated Internet exchange “there is no God,” Krasnov was confined for a month to a local hospital for psychiatric evaluation. If convicted under Russia’s blasphemy law, enacted in 2013 and making it illegal to “insult the religious convictions or feelings of citizens,” he may spend up to a year in prison.
During the Soviet era, Russia infamously held people in psychiatric wards and put them on trial, not for denying a deity, but affirming one. Either way, such punishment violates the universal human right of freedom of religion or belief. This fundamental liberty includes the right to believe or not to believe and live one’s life accordingly.
Russia, however, is not the only country where atheists face punishment. As noted in country chapters of its Annual Report, released on Monday, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), on which we serve, has found no shortage of nations that perpetrate or permit their persecution. It is time for our country to shine a powerful spotlight on these abuses.
George and Rosenthal continue:
Simply stated, societies that fail to protect the right to freedom of conscience of atheists rarely stop there.
It is time to send a message to every nation: Persecution of atheists and theists alike is equally reprehensible and must be condemned. Religious freedom is the precious birthright of humanity and must be honored and upheld for believers and skeptics alike.
You can read the full article here.
At the Washington Post, Ishan Tharoor has collected some of the writings of bloggers killed in Bangladesh over the past year. Here is one example:
Niloy Chatterjee, who went by the pen name Niloy Neel, was murdered in August in his apartment, his body brutally mutilated by his attackers. “His blood [was] spattered all over the books he loved,” noted a Bangladeshi secularist blog. Not long after the death of Das, Chatterjee had posted a notice on his Facebook page detailing an incident where be believed he was being tailed by suspicious individuals.
“I was quite scared, and hurried into a unfamiliar alley. Later when I looked back, I noticed that another young man, who had also been on the bus, had joined this young man, and they had not followed me into the alley; they were waiting at the alley entrance. Then I was quite certain that I was being followed,” he wrote.
He said that he tried to file a complaint, but no police officers would accept it. “A police officer had told me in confidence that the police do not want to accept” such complaints, Chatterjee explained with bemusement, because then the officer would have to be “accountable to ensure the personal safety of said individual. If the said individual faces any difficulty, then the relevant police officer may even lose his job for negligence in duty.” Then he was told: “Leave the country as soon as possible.”
You can read the full article here.
Just weeks after the deadly attack on a law student in Bangladesh, there have been another two deadly attacks in just two days in the country.
On Saturday of this past weekend, Rezaul Karim Siddique, a 58-year-old university professor of English, was hacked to death in an attack similar to murders of other secular and atheist activists. Daesh has since claimed responsibility.
And, just this evening in Dhaka, the senior editor of Bangladesh’s first LGBT magazine, Xulhaz Mannan, was murdered alongside his friend, a fellow LGBT rights activist.
We will have more on these stories as they develop.
The Center for Inquiry has led a coalition effort to urge the State Department to strengthen its engagement with the Bangladesh government to ensure that the rights to freedom of religion, belief, and expression are fully protected within the country.
Signatories to this letter incude Freedom House, PEN America, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the Hindu American Foundation, and the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative.
The letter, which was sent to Secretary of State John Kerry and Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David Saperstein, stated in part:
As you might recall, we wrote to you exactly you one year ago (April 22, 2015) with serious concerns regarding deadly attacks on religious minorities, atheists, and secularists in Bangladesh. In particular, on February 26, 2015, Islamic extremists armed with machetes attacked writer and activist Avijit Roy while Roy was leaving a book fair in Dhaka, which he was visiting with his wife, Rafida Bonya Ahmed. Roy, a naturalized U.S. citizen well known in Bangladesh for authoring numerous books and founding the freethought forum Mukto-Mona (Free-mind), was killed; Ahmed, also a naturalized U.S. citizen who wrote prominently on evolutionary biology, was critically injured, but survived. Just one month later, on March 30, 2015, Washiqur Rahman — a 27-year-old atheist who expressed criticisms of religious fundamentalism on social media — was, like Roy, brutally murdered in the same fashion by machete-wielding Islamic extremists.
Disturbingly, what we had hoped would be tragic anomalies have become almost normal in Bangladesh. On May 12, 2015, Ananta Bijoy Das was killed by a group of men armed with machetes in Sylhet; on August 7, 2015, Niloy Neel was killed by a group of six men armed with machetes who tricked their way into Niloy’s home in Dhaka, locked his partner in a room, and proceeded to hack Niloy to death; and on October 31, 2015, Faisal Arefin Deepan, a Muslim publisher of secularist books, including those of Avijit Roy, was killed by machete-wielding assailants at his Jagriti Prokashoni publishing house. The same day, three others — Ahmedur Rashid Tutul, Tariq Rahim, and Ranadipam Basu — were seriously injured in a similar attack at the Shudhdhoswar publishing house.
And, just days ago, on April 6, 2016, the pattern continued as Nazimuddin Samad, a student at Jagannath University, was attacked and killed by several suspected Islamic extremists while returning home from class. Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) claimed this attack, as they have several others on atheists in the country.
But perhaps more disturbing than the attacks themselves has been the responses by the Bangladesh government. The government has not issued any formal statements of support for murdered or threatened religious minorities, atheists, or secularists. Few arrests have been made in the recent murders, and no charges have been filed. Several of the attacks occurred in public areas with witnesses, raising serious questions as to how and why suspects have not been identified or charged. And threatened secularist writers and publishers who remain in the country and have requested assistance from law enforcement have been told to self-censor or else leave the country if they desire safety.
The crisis also impacts U.S. foreign interests. While it is true that homegrown extremists have been responsible for most of the violent attacks in Bangladesh, there is no doubt that their activity — and the government’s actions, which have fueled extremism or else let it go unimpeded — has created a perfect breeding ground for foreign terrorist groups such as Daesh and AQIS. Indeed, there are now credible reports that these groups have sympathizers operating in the country.
We therefore urge you to continue your engagement with government and law enforcement officials in Bangladesh to ensure they recognize the value of strongly defending democratic values and the fundamental human rights. In particular, we urge you to pressure the Bangladesh government to speak publicly in defense of the rights to exercise freedom of religion, belief, and expression, and to work with law enforcement officials on the ground to ensure threatened individuals and groups are protected, and extremists who are responsible for the murders of minorities are rooted out and brought to justice.
You can read the full letter here.
The Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University and the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom are co-sponsoring a half-day conference in Washington, D.C. on blasphemy laws:
Blasphemy laws designed to protect religious communities from criticism also constitute an important barrier to religious freedom. Penalties for blasphemy, ranging from public censure and fines to imprisonment and even death, can intimidate people with beliefs that diverge from established versions of orthodoxy.
How do blasphemy laws impact religious freedom in practice? Under what conditions does the suppression of religious (and non-religious) expression encourage violent religious extremism? Has the abolition of blasphemy laws promoted greater religious freedom and peaceful religious pluralism? How can the international community most effectively mobilize against such laws in practice?
The Religious Freedom Project is gathering a distinguished group of scholars, policymakers, and activists to debate these important questions. While the focus will be on Muslim-majority states like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, the symposium will also explore the historical and contemporary experience of other countries, including India and the United Kingdom.
You can find more information and register here.
The Telegraph reports on a disturbing case out of Germany that serves as a reminder there are some western nations with blasphemy laws:
A retired teacher in Germany has been fined €500 (£400) for defaming Christianity under the country’s rarely enforced blasphemy laws.
Albert Voss, a former physics teacher and avowed atheist, was convicted of blasphemy after he daubed the rear window of his car with anti-Christian slogans.
The 66-year-old drove around his home city of Münster, in western Germany, with the slogans clearly displayed.
“The church is looking for modern advertising ideas. I can help,” one read. “Jesus, our favorite artist: hanging for 2,000 years and he still hasn’t got cramp,” it went on to suggest, in an apparent reference to the crucifixion.
Another slogan was targetted at the Catholic church.
“Let’s make a piligrimage with Martin Luther to Rome!” it read. “Kill Pope Francis. The Reformation is cool.”
Münster is a heavily Catholic city, and an unnamed local filed a complaint with the police, who seized Mr Voss’ car and suspended his driving license.
The former teacher argued the anti-Christian messages were protected by his right to free expression.
But the court ruled the slogans amounted to defamation of religion and had broken Germany’s blasphemy laws.
You can read the full article here.