ARTICLE 19 condemns the arrest and detention of Mohon Kumar Mondal, director of Bangladeshi NGO LEDARS, for making ‘derogatory’ comments on Facebook regarding the Hajj. Mohon Kumar Mondal was charged in September 2015 under the Information Communication and Technology Act for damaging the religious sentiment of Muslims.
‘Prohibitions with regards to religious sentiment violate international standards on the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion. Such prohibitions also often stifle dissent and criticism from believers, religious minorities and non-believers alike,’ stated Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19; ‘the Bangladeshi authorities must immediately drop all charges against Mohon Kumar Mondal and rectify this restriction of online expression.’
Local police arrested Mohon on 26 September 2015 after the President of the Upazila (regional) unit of Awami League, Akbar Kabir, filed the case against him under section 57 of the Information Communication and Technology Act. The Awami League, is currently the governing political party in Bangladesh.
Another member of staff of the NGO was held for asking the police not to arrest Mohon, but was later released.
Mohon had removed the Facebook status a short time before the arrest: police stated on the charge sheet that they did not find any evidence on his mobile phone.
In his Facebook post, Mohon criticised Saudi Arabia’s security arrangements at Mina during the Hajj, and their negligence in dumping the dead bodies after the 24 September stampede. He also questioned the rationality of throwing stones at devils during the Muslim ritual suggesting that “such devils were roaming everywhere.”
Speaking to ARTICLE 19, Mohon’s wife Panchami Mondal said that she last visited her husband on 12 October in Sathkhira jail. Expressing dismay about the case, and quoting her husband, she stated that his “[Facebook] status was not premeditated, rather he made comments being emotional as many people died in stampede in Mina in Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during symbolic stoning of the devil.”
The deliberate publication or transmission online of any material, which “hurts or is likely to hurt religious sentiments,” is an offence in Bangladesh under section 57 of the Information Communication and Technology Act. In defining a similar offence relating to religion, the Penal Code 1860 specifies that a person to be criminally liable must have “deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of the citizens of Bangladesh.”
These provisions fall far short of the requirements of international law for several reasons:
- Under international law, freedom of expression protects not only the views and information that are favourably received, but precisely those that some people might find controversial, shocking, offensive or insulting. That also includes information and ideas that might hurt some people’s ‘religious beliefs’.
- To the extent that international law requires the prohibition of advocacy of religious hatred, it must be confined to “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.” The term “advocacy” and “incitement” imply that negligence or recklessness are not sufficient to impose sanctions and that something more than intentional distribution or circulation is required. The words “causing hurt or may hurt religious belief,” included in the provisions of section 57 are broader in scope and too vague to comply with what is permitted under international law.
- While international law protects the rights of individual persons and, in some instances, of groups and persons, it does not protect abstract entities such as values, religions, beliefs, ideas or symbols.
“Prohibitions, such as in section 57, are not only contrary to guarantees of freedom of expression, but counterproductive and prone to being abused against the religious minorities that they purport to protect. they can also be contrary to the promotion of tolerance and freedom of expression,” added Hughes.
ARTICLE 19 calls on the government of Bangladesh to release Mohon Mondal, and protect freedom of online expression, in full compliance with international standards.