Bangladesh arrests Sufi singer under internet law after protests

Shariat Sarker arrested under the stringent Digital Security Act for 'hurting religious sentiment of Muslims'.

    A rights group in Bangladesh reported at least 29 arrests last year under the contentious digital law [File: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters]
    A rights group in Bangladesh reported at least 29 arrests last year under the contentious digital law [File: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters]

    A top Bangladeshi Sufi folk singer has been arrested under a controversial internet law that critics say is used to stifle free speech after alleged anti-Islam comments triggered protests, police said.

    Shariat Sarker, 40, was arrested under the Digital Security Act for "hurting the religious sentiment of Muslims" in Mirzapur city on Saturday, local police chief Saidur Rahman told Al Jazeera on Monday.

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    An Islamic scholar filed a case against Sarker over comments made at a show in December, Rahman said, adding that a local court on Sunday remanded him to three days' custody.

    "We arrested him after Islamic cleric Maulana Faridul Islam filed a case against him," said Rahman.

    Last week, hundreds of people protested in Mymensingh and Mirzapur cities to demand the singer's arrest.

    Rahman said a 59-minute video of the show uploaded on YouTube has also been removed.

    Sarker could face up to 10 years in prison if found guilty at the trial.

    Journalists and rights activists say the Digital Security Act passed in 2018 is a serious threat to freedom of expression in the nation of 168 million people.

    Under the Act, anyone can face a life jail term for "propaganda" against the nation and up to 10 years for digital content that "hurts religious sentiments" or "creates unrest".

    In May last year, poet Henry Swapan was arrested in the southern city of Barishal under the Act for hurting religious sentiments. He was later granted bail.

    Odhikar, a rights group, reported at least 29 arrests last year under the stringent law.

    Artists express concern

    Sarker is well known among the tens of millions of Sufi followers in rural Bangladesh.

    Nikhil Das, president of Charan Cultural Centre, a platform for folk singers in Bangladesh, demanded an unconditional release of Sarkar.

    "He only said [the] Quran did not prohibit the practice of music," Das told Al Jazeera, adding that the singer was targeted for being vocal against using religion as a political tool.

    "We, the folk singers, want our freedom to exercise our cultural practices. Sarkar's arrest has created fear amongst us," said Das.

    Music expert Saymon Zakaria said folk singers regularly take liberties when interpreting Islamic legends in a way that may not reflect the official version.

    "There should not be literal interpretations of what is said during a performance. Folk singers must have freedom of expression," Zakaria said.

    Despite holding a prominent place in Bangladesh's history, more than a dozen Sufi leaders and followers have been killed in recent years by Islamist groups who consider them heretics.

    Additional reporting by Faisal Mahmud in Dhaka, Bangladesh

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies