New York: Bangladesh should immediately drop charges against and release four bloggers and a newspaper editor arrested this month, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.

All five are facing criminal charges solely related to the peaceful exercise of their right to free speech, it said in a statement.

Human Rights Watch said Dhaka should stop targeting individuals and media publishing stories the government deems objectionable and reaffirms its commitment to freedom of expression, a principle which the governing Awami League has long claimed to champion.

"By targeting peaceful critics in the media and blogosphere and promising more arrests, the government is abandoning any serious claim that it is committed to free speech," said Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch.

"Bangladeshis should have the right to peacefully express their views, and the state should address these demands through the rule of law instead of embarking on politically motivated arrests."

On April 2 and 3, police arrested four bloggers, Subrata Adhikari Shuvo, Mashiur Rahman Biplob, Rasel Parvez and Asif Mohiuddin who posted articles either critical of the government's attempts to appease the Islamist demands or said that the government had failed to address the concerns of minority religions.

Police described the four as "known atheists and naturalists" who wrote derogatory things about the Prophet, and said the four would face charges of "instigating negative elements against Islam to create anarchy."

"These bloggers can only be called political prisoners, since they are in jail for peacefully expressing their views," Adams said.

"Freedom of religion also includes the freedom not to believe in a religion and to make those views known. For a government that has always presented itself as liberal and secular this is a huge retreat from the values it claims to uphold."

Bangladesh has been gripped by large-scale protests, political unrest, and violence since the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), a court set up to prosecute those responsible for atrocities committed during the country's 1971 war of independence, sentenced a Jamaat-e-Islami party leader, Abdul Qader Mollah, to life in prison instead of capital punishment February5.

Hundreds of thousands throughout Bangladesh took to the streets in peaceful protests to demand that Mollah be hanged.

The situation took a more violent turn after the ICT, on February28, sentenced vice-president of the Jamaat party Delwar Hossain Sayedee to death by hanging after finding him guilty of war crimes.

Following this verdict, supporters of the Jamaat party took to the streets in protest, leading to clashes between them, the Shahbagh protesters, and security forces attempting to control the protests.

At least 90 people have died, most of them in police firing according to media and human rights groups.

While the "Shahbagh Movement" is campaigning for the death penalty for the accused, supporters of the Jamaat party are protesting the trial process and the rulings of the tribunal, claiming political bias.

Increasingly, the protests appear to have sharpened along religious lines, with some Islamist clerics demanding a blasphemy law and with others in the Shahbagh movement publishing statements supporting atheist principles, largely through blogs and other electronic media.

In response, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina reaffirmed that Bangladesh is a secular state. However, the criminal justice authorities also cracked down on government critics in the media, including social media.

Following the arrests of the bloggers, the government made clear that the restrictions and arrests will continue. The government announced that he had a list of seven other "atheist bloggers" who would be arrested soon.


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