In an open letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and President Abdul Hamid they also took a serious exception to the administration’s response to the spate of killings.
They called upon the Bangladesh government to stop “victim-blaming” the bloggers, and instead focus on catching the extremists who were murdering them.
The campaign is the initiative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) along with a network ofBangladeshi bloggers and activists.
The signatories to the letter include threatened Bangladeshi bloggers and activists, representatives of organisations focused on human rights including freedom of expression or freedom of belief, religious and secular groups, and also individual writers, journalists, artists, academics and other professionals.
The IHEU in a media statement issued on Wednesday said the letter also accused the authorities of ‘making matters worse’ by engaging in “victim-blaming”.
It cited the remarks made by the inspector general of police and the Cabinet Committee on Law and Order, and the home minister after the most recent murder of blogger Niladri Chatterjee Niloy on Aug 7.
IGP AKM Shahidul Hoque had advised bloggers not to cross the limit and hurt anyone’s religious belief after the killing.
“The (police chief) in Dhaka suggested that more bloggers criticising religion and advocating humanism would be arrested under the country’s online communications laws.
“The sentiments were repeated by the Cabinet Committee on Law and Order and the Home Minister, a stand which the open letter describes as state institutions engaging in ‘victim-blaming,” the press release said.
The letter also termed the police’s suggestions that those named on new Islamist militant ‘hit lists’ should ‘lodge a police complaint’ if they thought they were being ‘followed’ as a “grossly inadequate, highly negligent response to what is evidently a most serious and potentially fatal threat.”
“A number of Islamist groups, including Awami Olama League which is closely associated with your own Awami League party, have made new demands of death penalties for all atheist bloggers and activists, echoing the rhetoric of Islamist extremists in other parties,” the signatories pointed out in the open letter.
“Obviously, this demand represents a gross violation of the rights of the non-religious to freedom of thought, and against freedom of expression generally and must be firmly and explicitly rejected,” they added.
“Furthermore, your Cabinet Committee for Law and Order, headed by Minister of Industries Amir Hossain Amu, on their 9 August 2015 meeting decided “to declare Atheist authors as criminals”, thereby making them subject to prosecution, and intelligence agencies have been asked to monitor blogs to find those atheist writers.
“Even under the current law, such a mass arrest of people who profess non-religious views in their online communications would represent a grave violation of the international human rights obligations to which Bangladesh is committed.
“The Home Minister in a separate speech was seen repeating the same warning message.”
The letter said these institutions and officials of the state by “demonising free expression” and appeasing “murderous extremists” were destroying Bangladesh's claim to be a democratic state that upholds the human rights of all citizens.
“To criminalize the expression of ‘anything that may hurt anyone’s religious sentiments or beliefs’ (as the Inspector General of Police puts it) means in practice that fundamentalists and extremists can say and do anything they want, while anyone who stands for democracy, free expression, rationalism, justice, and human rights would be reduced to silence,” the letter said.
It said such approach was a “recipe for a theocratic state in thrall to the most extremist members of society.”
The signatories in their four-point demand called for better security for those under threat, including the witnesses and family members, and urged the two leaders to instruct police to find the killers and not to harass or blame the victims.
They also demanded political isolation of the ruling party members who were calling for “death penalties” against atheist bloggers.
They further urged the government to “work decisively” for legal reform to repeal Section 295A of the Penal Code and section 57 of the ICT Act of 2006.
Those needed to be done in order to bring the legal system of Bangladesh in line with the spirit and values of freedom of expression and ‘of conscience’ as enshrined in the Constitution of Bangladesh, and as per obligations under the international human rights instruments to which Bangladesh is party.
Signatories to the letter include Barrister Sara Hossain, Ajoy Roy, Rafida Bonya Ahmed, Taslima Nasreen, Professor Anu Muhammad, Professor Kaberi Gayen, Dr Rumana Hashem, Ansar Ahmed Ullah, Andrew Copson, President of IHEU, Alice Carr, the President of Progressive Atheists Inc, Shahid Khan, the Vice-President of Global Minorities Alliance, and many more distinguished academics, writers and secularists.
They were also joined by major freedom of expression campaign organisations including Reporters Without Borders, Index on Censorship, as well as liberal religious groups such as Muslims for Progressive Values, and Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Ex-Muslim “apostate” groups among others.
The President of the IHEU Andrew Copson said: "As each of these bloggers, activists, and humanists has been cut down, there has been a tremendous outpouring of grief not just in Bangladesh but among the humanist and human rights community globally.
“The grief is followed by a frustration that intensifies each time, as the failures of the authorities begin to amount to victim-blaming and a sort of collective harassment.”
IHEU also appeared sceptical about the Tuesday’s arrest of three persons in connection with the murders of bloggers Avijit Roy and Ananta Bijoy Das.
It said despite several previous arrests no one had yet been convicted, or even tried, for any of the blogger murders.
IHEU argues that “the burden is on the Bangladeshi authorities to demonstrate, fairly and lawfully, that any of these arrests is credible and justifiable".
Dr Rumana Hashem, a political sociologist and a columnist for bdnews24.com, who got death threat from the jihadists, noted: “As Bangladesh was born to embrace secularism, it is time for the government to respond to our joint-statement with a positive action.
“We hope that this letter will help our Prime Minister and President to wake up. That is the government will come out of their misogyny and rhetorical stance against freethinkers.
“It is time to save Bangladesh from being turned into a holy-land.”