Bangladesh arrests three atheist bloggers amid pressure

DHAKA (AFP) - Bangladesh police have arrested three atheist bloggers for defaming Islam and the prophet Mohammed, police said on Tuesday, amid demands from religious fundamentalists for an Internet crackdown.

The arrests of the three, who were paraded in handcuffs at a press conference Tuesday, came after pressure from Islamists who have organised a march to the capital to demand the death penalty for atheist bloggers.

"They have hurt religious feelings of the people by writing against different religions and their prophets and founders including the Prophet Mohammed," deputy commissioner of Dhaka police Molla Nazrul Islam said.

The three could face 10 years in jail if convicted under the country's cyber laws, which outlaw "defaming" a religion, he added.

He denied that the arrests were linked to the threats from Islamists whose march to the capital is set to take place on Saturday.

The debate between militant atheists and fundamentalists has been a popular subject in Bangladesh's blogosphere and on social media for years, but it took a deadly turn in February when an atheist blogger was murdered.

The arrests came as the nation has been hit by protests over a war crimes tribunal trying leading figures during the 1971 war of independence.

Protests encouraged by secular bloggers have seen hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets demanding the execution of leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, the country's largest Islamic party and key opposition.

Islamists have in turn held demonstrations demanding the trials be halted and have also begun targeting bloggers.

The government has blocked about a dozen websites and blogs to stem the violence. It also set up a panel, which included intelligence chiefs, to snoop for blasphemy in the social media.

Last week, the country's telecoms regulator ordered two sites to remove hundreds of posts of seven bloggers whose writings it said offended Muslims.

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