Today, the EHF and the IHEU, co-signed a letter addressed to Ján Figel, Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU, calling on him act for the protection of Bangladeshi human rights defender Sultana Kamal over threats by Islamist hardline group Hefazat-e-Islam.
The letter was accompanied by a breifing put together by Amnesty International.
Read the letter below.
His Excellency Ján Figel
Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion
or belief outside the EU
Rue de la Loi 200
1000 – Brussels
Brussels, 15 June 2017
Concern: Protection of Bangladeshi human rights defender Sultana Kamal over threats by Islamist hardline group Hefazat-e-Islam.
Sultana Kamal is a lawyer and prominent human rights activist in Bangladesh well known for her work on civil, political and gender rights. She served as the Executive Director of Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), a legal aid and human rights organisation in Bangladesh for over 15 years. In addition to that, she is the Chair of the We Can End Violence Against Women Alliance, Chair of Transparency International Bangladesh and also Co-chair of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission.
On 2 June 2017, she was publicly threatened with arrest, exile and extreme violence by Islamist group Hefazat-e-Islam, who had intentionally misrepresented some comments she made during a TV talk show. During Friday Prayers at the country’s largest mosque Baitul Mukarram in Dhaka, Hefazat’s Vice-President Junayed Al-Habib falsely claimed Sultana Kamal had called for the removal of all mosques from the country, and demanded her arrest within 24 hours. He went further threatening: “If you [Sultana Kamal] come out to the streets, we will break every bone in your body.” Numerous YouTube videos have been posted by Hefazat supporters since 2 June threatening or inciting violence against her.
The Dhaka Police declared on 5 June they had taken joint measures for providing protection to Sultana Kamal. As highlighted by Amnesty International and Front Line Defenders, these measures are clearly insufficient to protect her life. Furthermore, there has been no public condemnation of the threats by the authorities, nor police investigations launched.
The European Humanist Federation and the International Humanist and Ethical Union have repeatedly and strongly denounced the lack of willingness of the Bangladeshi authorities to protect human rights defenders, and especially non-believers and freethinkers from growing Islamists’ threats. Between February 2013 and June 2016, at least 14 human rights defenders, secular writers and activists were murdered in Bangladesh. Several of those threatened have managed to leave the country but those remaining are literally caught between death threats and repression from the State on the grounds of “insults to religion”.
We therefore call you to urge the Bangladeshi authorities to:
- Take immediate action to ensure the safety of Sultana Kamal, in coordination with her wishes;
- Conduct a thorough, impartial, independent and effective investigation into the threats made against Sultana Kamal and bring those responsible to justice in trials which meet international standards of fairness;
- Ensure that human rights defenders are able to carry out peaceful activities without fear of surveillance, intimidation, harassment, arrest, prosecution or retribution, and guarantee the integrity of human rights defenders, including against attacks or threats coming from non-state groups.
- Vigorously protect the full exercise of the freedoms of religion, belief, and expression, threatened atheists, secularists, minorities, and all those exercising their rights in their country. This implies to remove the blasphemy provisions in the Bangladeshi penal code and law.
Should you need further information on the case, we invite you to contact us and to read Amnesty International’s briefing paper attached to this letter.
Thank you for your attention.
European Humanist Federation
International Humanist and Ethical Union
 Both Bangladesh penal code (section 295A and 298) and the Information and Communication Act 2006 (section 57) provide for either imprisonment up to 14 years or a fine or both for those who “hurt religious beliefs” with their words, acts or writings.