Government fails to protect freedom of religion and assembly of Ahmadiyya community

by William Gomes

(February 23, Dhaka, Sri Lanka Guardian) Recently the administrative authorities of Gazipur district cancelled permission for the holding of the 87th Annual Convention of Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama'at, Bangladesh, a religious community having conflicting identity with the majority Muslims, on 6 February 2011 in a sudden decision without any prior notice.

The annual convention of the community was scheduled for February 6 to 8. The police evacuated the Ahamadiya while the Deputy Commissioner of the district imposed a ban on any public gathering at the venue for which the community had paid all the necessary fees following the procedure. The government has failed to protect the right to freedom of religion and assembly of the community.

On 24 January, the Office of the Deputy Commissioner (DC) of Gazipur district issued a letter granting permission for the proposed convention at the booked venue at the Bahadurpur Rover Scout Camping Ground for the three days' convention. The community made the necessary payments in advance to the authorities of the venue after the permission from the Gazipur district administration was granted for hosting the programme.

Accordingly, on 2 January 2011, the General Secretary of the Ahmadiya community Mr. Mohammad Jahidur Rahman booked the venue at the Rover Scouts Camping Centre's ground at Bahadurpur, under the jurisdiction of the Joydevpur police station in Gazipur district said Source

As part of the procedure the community leaders sought permission from the local administration, represented by the Deputy Commissioner of the Gazipur district, and requested the Inspector General of the Bangladesh Police to tighten the security of the venue during the convention.

On 5 February, the senior leaders of the community met the DC Md. Kamal Uddin Talukder and the Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) of Joydevpur Circle Mr. Nuruzzaman of the Gazipur district in person and presented them each with the Holy Qura'an. At that time the officials gave no indication of any fear of the deterioration of the law and order or objection of the local inhabitants.

By the morning of 6 February, on the first day of the three day convention, around eight thousand followers arrived in the venue while three thousand people were about to join within a few hours.

The source told the Srilanka Guardian that at around 10am an ASP named Mr. Zaman came in force to their venue and asked them to leave the place immediately by saying that the Office of the DC of Gazipur cancelled permission, which had been granted 13 days earlier, and imposed Section 144 (of the Code of Criminal Procedure-1898) following "objection from the local people" regarding the programme of the Ahmadiyya community. The police, behaving very rudely, switched off the sound system during the ongoing ceremony.

While the elders from the venue communicated with the leader of community in the central office in the midst of the police pressure for evacuating the venue, Mr. Motahar Ahamed Chowdhury, an executive committee member of the Ahmadiyya community, called on the cell phone no. +880173003489 of the DC, who confirmed that he cancelled the permission by saying that he was "surrounded" by Moulanas to cancel the permission.

A delegation of the Ahmadiyya community communicated with the top level decision-makers of the government, however, the influential authorities suggested the delegation to "fix another date" without helping the community to hold to its scheduled programme. The community leaders did not have an alternative but postponing their religious programme as a result of the administrative decision over the cancellation , source said

Following repeated requests from the Ahmadiyya community's leaders to provide an official prove regarding the cancellation of their programme the Gazipur district administration gave two official circulars at around 5pm on 6 February. In the official circular, signed by the DC of Gazipur district Mr. Md. Kamal Uddin Talukder, who is the ex-officio District Magistrate, claimed that at 12 noon on 6 February cancelled the permission by the power bestowed upon him according to Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure-1898. Mr. Md. Kamal Uddin Talukder claims that "due to the fear of deterioration of the law and order in the area all movement, entry, activities against the law and order was ordered banned until any further order". The circular also mentioned that "any person except a member of the law-enforcing agent violates the order shall be liable for punishment under Section 188 of the Penal Code" (of 1860).

The Ahmadiyya community's head of the convention organizing committee Mir Mobassher Ali claims in a written statement that the host community's leaders followed due process to organise their annual convention. As a "non-political and peace-loving community" they selected an isolated place as their venue, which is less-populated and inaccessible to the outsiders, in order to hold comprehensive discussions on their religious norms, standards and feelings among the followers to be gathered from all parts of the country. The local people, including a Member of Parliament and other local government bodies, were cooperating with them and the atmosphere was absolutely non-violent on the eve of the convention. Mir Mobassher alleges that the Gazipur district administration cancelled the permission without any reasonable ground or visible symptom in favour of the cancellation as claimed that there was "fear of deterioration of the law and order in the area".

The leaders of the community alleges that "the local administration surrendered to a segment of the fundamentalist" denying their constitutionally enshrined right. They claim that around fifty persons chanted slogans demanding the cancellation of the convention (Ahmadiyya) while five Mollahs met the DC and insisted that he impose Section 144 (of the Code of Criminal Procedure-1898).

Human rights activist Shahed Kayes , the executive Director of Subornogram said the Freedom of religion is protected as one of the fundamental rights of the citizens in the Constitution of Bangladesh. Article 41 (1) enshrines freedom of religion, as it reads: "Subject to law, public order and morality-

(a) every citizen has the right to profess, practice or propagate any religion; (b) every religious community or denomination has the right to establish, maintain and manage its religious institutions."

He also said that besides, any discrimination is prohibited in the constitution as fundamental rights. The Article 28 (1) of the Constitution of Bangladesh reads: "The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race caste, sex or place of birth".

The human rights activist said Bangladesh is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). According to Article 18 of the ICCPR, "1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.

3. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

4. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions."

Moreover, the Constitution of Bangladesh in Article 37 enshrines the freedom of assembly, which reads:

"Every citizen shall have the right to assemble and to participate in public meetings and processions peacefully and without arms, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of public order health."

According to Article 21 of the ICCPR:

"The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others."

As a State-party to the ICCPR and due to specific provision of the country's constitution Bangladesh has international and constitutional obligation to protect the rights of the religious minority communities.

Mr.Kayes said the action of the Gazipur district administration raises question as to why the authority suddenly cancelled the permission for holding the convention of the Ahmadiyya community, which initiated the process more than a month before the latter's proposed programme. The authorities officially conduct an intelligence survey and verification regarding the proposed public meetings and gatherings prior to granting permission to the hosts of the programme. In this case if it is generally understood that the Gazipur district authority did their job following the required procedure, then the question of the credibility comes due to the sudden cancellation of the programme.

He also said the police arrived at the venue at 10am to evacuate the venue occupied by the organizers and participants of the Ahmadiyya community by informing that the programme had been cancelled by the administration. On the contrary, the ex-officio District Magistrate of Gazipur claims in his official circular that "at 12 noon on 6 February" the order had been issued regarding restriction on entry, movement and gathering at the Rover Scout Camping ground until further order. It raises question that whether the authority intervened into the programme prior to passing the order or the police abused their power due any influence or not?

Moreover, the failure of the decision-making authorities of the government to ensure necessary security arrangements to allow the Ahmadiyya community to hold its pre-scheduled programme represents the mindset of the government regarding the freedom of the religious minority communities in the country.

He urged that government should immediately investigate into the case by competent officials and ensure the right to freedom of religion and assembly be guaranteed immediately. Those found to have been involved in the cancellation process without a reasonable ground must be prosecuted without delay. He also said that the Ahmadiyya communitycommunity must be afforded adequate compensation and protection from any further harassment and threats from state and non-state agents.

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