The arrests occurred in Bangladesh, a country where then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared last May that the U.S. is not “anti-Islam.”
“President Obama has sent a very clear message of respect and appreciation of all religions, and in particular of Islam,” she told an audience during her visit, the first by a U.S. secretary of state in nine years.
The three Bangladeshis, described in local news reports as “atheist bloggers,” were paraded handcuffed before the media in the capital, Dhaka, with the city’s deputy police chief telling reporters they could be imprisoned for 10 years if found guilty of religious “defamation.”
“They have hurt the religious feelings of the people by writing against different religions and their prophets and founders including the prophet Mohammed,” he said.
A Dhaka court granted police permission to interrogate the trio for seven days, Bangladesh’s Daily Star reported.
Also taking part in the press conference was Law Minister Shafique Ahmed, who pledged that “whoever hurts the religious sentiment will be brought to justice.”
Two tribunals had been set up to try “cyber-crimes” and a judge had been appointed to head one, he said.
Earlier, an Islamist group submitted a list of more than 80 alleged “atheist bloggers” to a government panel investigating blasphemy on the Internet, and the three arrests came just four days before a planned mass protest by Islamists demanding the death penalty for online blasphemy.
The arrests appear to be the latest twist in a controversy that has roiled Bangladeshi society in recent months.
A war-crimes tribunal, set up by the government in 2009 to investigate and punish atrocities committed during the country’s 1971 war of independence, delivered three verdicts in January and February, and all three convicted men are linked to the country’s largest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami.
The first man, believed to be hiding in Pakistan and tried in absentia, was found guilty of rape, genocide and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to death.
The second, convicted in early February of offenses including crimes against humanity, was sentenced to life imprisonment. That sentence prompted secular bloggers to encourage citizens to take to the streets to demand the death penalty.
Then in late February, the tribunal delivered its third verdict, convicting Jamaat vice-president Delwar Hossain Sayedee of war crimes and sentencing him to death. Angered by the decision, Jamaat supporters went on the rampage, and more than 70 people were killed.
Against that background, bloggers accuse Jamaat and other Islamist groups of using the blasphemy issue in a bid to thwart the tribunal, and view the legal action against the bloggers as a concession to Islamists by a government wanting to calm the unrest.
On March 13 the government established a panel, including intelligence officials and Islamic scholars, to look for online content deemed blasphemous. It also invited complainants to write in about any offensive material found. Several blogs and websites were blocked, and some were ordered to remove certain posts.
Tuesday’s arrests sparked more protests by bloggers and others, who said the move infringed free speech and warned that the safety of those on the list of “atheist bloggers” may be at risk.
Bangladesh, a country carved out of Pakistan amid an Indo-Pakistan war in 1971-72, is the world’s third most populous Muslim country, after Indonesia and Pakistan.
Recent years have seen mixed views among Bangladeshis about the United States. A Gallup poll in 2011 found support there for U.S. leadership had dropped by 17 percentage points over the previous year – the biggest drop recorded out of 37 Asian countries surveyed – but that was followed by a rise of 14 points between 2011 and 2012.
During her visit last May, Clinton was asked about “the common perception held by many young people that the U.S. is anti-Muslim.”
“Oh, that hurts me,” she replied. “That hurts me so much, honestly. I mean, it’s a painful perception to hear about, and I deeply regret that anyone believes that or propagates it.”
Clinton defended the U.S. against the allegation, and also challenged other countries to treat its religious minorities better.