Thousands in Bangladesh on Saturday demanded that the government introduce anti-blasphemy laws, including provisions to prosecute and hang atheist bloggers, in a rally organized by Hefazat-e-Islam, an Islamic group drawing support from thousands of seminaries and allegedly backed by Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) [party website, in Bengali; GlobalSecurity backgrounder]. The protest [Al Jazeera report] was alleged to have sparked in response to bloggers criticizing conservative religious parties, although both secular and religious protesters have been in a state of violent unrest over the war crimes trials [JURIST news archives] of JI leaders. On Wednesday, Home Minister Muhiuddin Khan [official profile] said the government identified 11 bloggers who had "hurt the religious sentiments" of Bangladesh's Muslim population, and four individuals were arrested [Huffington Post report] on those charges. The government has blocked many websites and blogs to stem the unrest, and has set up an intelligence panel to monitor for blasphemy on social media. Under the country's current cyber laws, a blogger can face up to ten years in prison for defaming a religion.
Although the "Long March" protest of Saturday was religiously charged, violent protests have wracked Bangladesh since February in response to unpopular rulings by the International Crimes Tribunal Bangladesh (ICTB) [Facebook page]. Last month, UN rights experts and Human Rights Watch (HRW) [JURIST reports] urged all parties involved to encourage an end to the violence in favor of peaceful protests. In February, the Bangladesh parliament [official website, JURIST report] and the Bangladesh Cabinet [JURIST report] approved amendments to the country's war crimes laws to allow prosecutors to appeal sentences given to defendants convicted of war crimes. These amendments were a response to protests that ensued after Abdul Quader Mollah, a JI leader, was given a life sentence [JURIST reports] for war crimes committed during the Bangladesh Liberation War [GlobalSecurity backgrounder]. The protesters believed a life sentence was too lenient and that Mollah, who was convicted of charges including murder, rape and torture, should have been given the death penalty. The law passed by parliament will be effective retroactively [AP report] to July 2009, allowing prosecutors to appeal Mollah's sentence.