Bangladesh: Hardline Muslims rally in support of anti-blasphemy laws

Hardline Muslims rallied in Bangladesh Saturday, demanding harsher punishments for those who insult Islam. They've also targeted a group of bloggers who want to ban Jamaat-e-Islami, the country's largest Islamic party.

A.M. Ahad/AP
Hifazat-e-Islam activists shout slogans during a rally to demand authorities enact an anti-blasphemy law punishing people who insult Islam, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Saturday.

Hundreds of thousands of members of a hardline Muslim group rallied in Bangladesh's capital on Saturday to demand authorities enact anti-blasphemy laws to punish people who insult Islam.

Separately, members of the group, Hifazat-e-Islam, clashed with police and pro-government activists in a district outside of the capital, leaving a ruling party supporter dead.

The massive rally in Dhaka took place amid heightened security in the capital and elsewhere in Bangladesh after Hifazat-e-Islam members targeted bloggers who they say are atheists. It also took place despite a daylong shutdown across the Muslim-majority country that was enforced by about 25 liberal and secular groups to denounce the rally.

The bloggers, who deny they are atheists, are seeking capital punishment for those found guilty of war crimes during the nation's 1971 independence war against Pakistan. They also want a ban on Jamaat-e-Islami, the country's largest Islamic party, for campaigning against Bangladesh's independence more than four decades ago. The party is a key partner of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which is led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.

Top Jamaat-e-Islami leaders are accused of crimes against humanity during the 1971 war, and two senior party leaders were convicted this year by a special tribunal.Bangladesh says as many as 3 million people were killed and 200,000 women raped by Pakistani troops and local collaborators during the war.

The organizers of the shutdown said the hardline group was not interested in protecting Islam, but that rather it wants to create an environment in the country to help Jamaat-e-Islami free the party's detained leaders.

As a result of the shutdown, roads were blocked and train and bus services were suspended, practically cutting Dhaka off from rest of the country.

Still, hundreds of thousands of Hifazat-e-Islam members managed to join the rally, most of them wearing white Islamic skullcaps.

While Hifazat-e-Islam said its rally was non-political and not aligned with the opposition, Zia's party backed the demonstration, and media reports said Jamaat-e-Islami provided funds to help organize it.

The group listed 13 demands, including reinstating "absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah" in the nation's constitution, which is largely secular, and passing a law providing for capital punishment for maligning Allah, Islam and its Prophet Muhammad.

The group's other demands include declaring the minority Ahmadiya sect living in the country non-Muslims and banning "all foreign culture, including free mixing of men and women."

They said the bloggers, who have held street protests to demand all convicted war criminals be executed, should be punished.

Somoy TV and the Daily Star newspaper reported that a supporter of the ruling Awami League party, Nausher Khan, died after clashes broke out in central Bangladesh'sFaridpur district. Another 15 men were injured, the reports said. Faridpur is 60 kilometers (37 miles) west of Dhaka.

Saturday's rally came amid months of violence stemming from a bitter political rivalry between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government and the Zia-led opposition.

Hasina initiated the war crimes trials in 2010. Ten of the defendants convicted or on trial are from Jamaat-e-Islami, while two others belong to Zia's party.

In February, the tribunal sentenced a senior Jamaat-e-Islami party leader to death, but the decision sparked violent clashes between opposition activists and police that left more than 70 people dead.

Hifazat-e-Islam said it would enforce a daylong shutdown across the country on Monday to protest the alleged obstruction of their supporters' attempts to reach Saturday's rally.

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