Four atheist bloggers in Bangladesh are facing up to 14 years in prison for defaming Islam and the Prophet Mohammed, including one who was stabbed viciously by fundamentalist attackers earlier this year.
"They have been indicted with defaming Islam, Prophet Mohammed and other religions through their Internet writings. They spread malice against all religions," senior public prosecutor Shah Alam Talukdar told AFP.
The four accused are 24-year old Subrata Adhikari Shuvo, 36-year old Russel Parvez, 42-year old Mashiur Rahman Biplob, and 29-year old Asif Mohiuddin. The bloggers were arrested earlier this year after nationwide protests by Muslims targeting atheists who were critical of Islam in online posts.
Mohiuddin was stabbed repeatedly in January by suspected Islamist fundamentalists, who attacked him after leaving work one night in Dhaka. He survived after spending time in critical condition in a hospital, and in August shared with The Friendly Atheist blog that he had 53 stitches all over his body bearing witness to the attack.
"The doctors gave up all hopes for my life, however they could finally bring me back to life after a four hour long operation. I'm still not fully able to move my neck," Mohiuddin said. "Doctors told me that it was a clear attempt to murder and I was lucky to have survived despite the attack being severe and gruesome."
Clashes between Islamic protesters and police left at least 38 people dead in May. Atheists have been targeted for their postings online, and right groups have called on the government to drop charges against them.
The government has said that its actions are aimed at ensuring communal harmony in a country where nearly 89.5 percent of the population is Muslim, and another 9.6 percent are Hindu – with all other beliefs making up barely 0.9 percent.
The Associated Press noted that the trial is set for Nov. 6. The accused are currently out on bail after spending nearly three months in jail, but could be sentenced to as much as 14 years in prison if found guilty.
Bangladesh's blasphemy laws prohibit criticizing religion, and target those with "deliberate" or "malicious" intention of hurting religious sentiments.
"The relative strictness of these laws implies the existence of several limitations on the discussion of some religious questions in the public sphere, given that there is a criminal sentence for the rather ambiguous crime of 'hurting religious sentiments,'" notes the UCLA Asia Institute.
Mohiuddin told The Friendly Atheist blog that despite the attack and the looming trial, he is not giving up his fight for freedom of speech.
"But I'll fight till the end for my freedom of speech, my freedom of believing and not believing and criticizing religious dogmas and fundamentalism. Even if I die, some other will take my place and he will keep fighting," Mohiuddin said.
Religious minorities in Bangladesh such as Christians also experience persecution. Open Doors USA says that conversion to Christianity is still "the most shameful act for a Muslim in this country."
"New Christians are often alienated from family, expelled from their communities or pressured to revert to Islam. Often, they and their families are beaten and authorities deny them due process of law. Growing local congregations attract opposition from underground terrorist groups and Muslim neighbors," the watchdog group added in its report on the South Asian country.