Supporters shout slogans as they attend a protest in the capital of Bangladesh after a march was organised by the radical Hefajat-e-Islam group. Image Credit: EPA

Dhaka: Hundreds of thousands of Islamists rallied in Dhaka on Saturday after staging a “long march” to the Bangladeshi capital to demand the execution of atheist bloggers for allegedly defaming Islam.

It was the latest protest to rack Bangladesh, deepening tensions between secularists and the largest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, whose leaders are under trial for crimes committed during the country’s 1971 war of independence.

The Islamists converged on Dhaka’s main commercial hub to protest against what they said were blasphemous writings by atheist bloggers, shouting “God is great — hang the atheist bloggers”.

They defied a pro-government national strike by secular protesters — who staged a smaller rival protest in Dhaka on Saturday — aimed at foiling the Islamists’ march.

“Around 200,000 people attended the rally,” Dhaka’s deputy police commissioner Shaikh Nazmul Alam said, while protest organisers put the number at over half a million.

Authorities told AFP, meanwhile, two activists of the ruling secular Awami League had died in the last 24 hours in clashes with Islamist demonstrators, bringing to 96 the number killed in violence linked to the war crimes trials.

Protest organisers called Saturday’s rally the “long march”. Many began travelling by foot on Friday from remote villages to Dhaka’s Motijheel area that became a sea of white skull caps and robes.

“I’ve come here to fight for Islam. We won’t allow any bloggers to blaspheme our religion and our beloved Prophet Mohammed [PBUH],” said Shahidul Islam, an imam at a mosque outside Dhaka who walked 20 kilometres.

13-point demand

Hefajat-e-Islam, an Islamic group supported by tens of thousands of seminaries, organised the rally in support of its 13-point demand that included enactment of a blasphemy law to execute atheist bloggers.

There has been vociferous debate between staunch atheists and fundamentalists in Bangladesh’s social media for years, but it took a deadly turn in February when an anti-Islam blogger was murdered.

Earlier in the week, four online writers were arrested on charges of hurting Islamic religious sentiments in a country where 90 per cent of people are Muslims.

Following recent protests over the war crimes tribunal, the government has blocked a dozen websites and blogs to stem the unrest. It has also set up a panel, which includes intelligence chiefs, to monitor blasphemy on social media.

Under the country’s cyber laws, a blogger or internet writer can face up to 10 years in jail for defaming a religion.

Secularists’ strike

Dhaka was virtually cut off from the rest of the country from Friday afternoon when secularists called a 22-hour nationwide strike to obstruct the march and private transport operators halted services fearing violence.

Islamists who could not take part in the march staged rallies in cities and towns across the country, with some 7,000 taking part in a protest in the port city of Chittagong, local police officer Nazrul Islam told AFP.

Two Jamaat leaders have already been convicted by the tribunal which critics accuse of fabricating charges as part of a government bid to settle political scores, rather than to deliver justice.

The government says the trials are needed to heal the wounds of the 1971 war in which it says three million people were killed. Independent estimates put the death toll at between 300,000 and 500,000.