My friend Ahmed is currently on a death list. He has already survived a knife attack just a few days after a friend of his was chopped to death with a machete, and the last thing he heard from his wife, who he has a six-year-old son with, was a letter stating she wanted to get divorced.
Ahmed used to be a successful IT-entrepreneur, traveling the world educating people. But his life was turned upside down when police dashed into his home while he was on a business trip in Sweden. The police raid caused Ahmed's 67-year-old father to get a stroke. Following the raid, Ahmed's 50 employees resigned out of fear to end up in the same situation, the landlord of his office canceled the contract, and within days, Ahmed had lost everything that made sense to his life.
Ahmed is currently in Sweden where he borrows money from friends, sleeps at places via couch surfing sites and eats at restaurants where he knows the owners. I try to help him as much as I can, too.
When Ahmed's father told him that Bangladeshi police wanted to arrest him, he applied for asylum in Sweden. But due to EU regulations, the immigration authorities wanted him to go to Germany, where he entered the European Union first. However, in Sweden, asylum seekers can get a working permit, but in Germany there is no such option. For Ahmed, who has built up his own company and has nothing left other than himself, work is the only thing that can give his life meaning again.
Ahmed presenting his former company at the IT fair Cebit in Germany. (Photo by Uttam Kumar Paul)
I met Ahmed for the first time at a mutual friend's house party. We got along well from the beginning. Ahmed is a man of few words – he's friendly, likes to socialise and stands firm to his convictions. When we went on the balcony for a smoke he began telling me his story. At that time I didn't ask what it was he had written in his blog that forced him to flee from friends and family. We started going to couch surfing meetings together, drinking beer, and enjoying ourselves. I saw a friend in Ahmed, both of us being foreigners in Sweden, and having politics as common ground. It wasn't until later, when I started digging into his past and the current issues in Bangladesh that I found out what he and his fellow bloggers had been – and still are – campaigning for.
In early February, the International Criminal Court – which despite what the name implies isn't under international law – sentenced Abdul Quader Mollah, the secretary-general of the Islamic party Jamaat-e-Islami, to a lifetime in prison – having allegedly beheaded a poet, raped an 11-year-old girl, and shot 344 people during the 1971 Bangladesh war of independence. For some blogging activists, including Ahmed, this punishment wasn't enough. Their protests became part of the biggest demonstration Bangladesh had seen for two decades.
While some bloggers wanted Mollah to be sentenced to death, which is the highest punishment in Bangladesh, Ahmed demanded a fair trial eventually leading to 100, 200 or 300 years in prison. For Ahmed, it's a matter of principle as he isn't a supporter of death penalties, and rather wants Mollah to be sentenced for as long as possible. The difference between a lifetime sentence and centuries of prison is important to him – even if it in practice really isn't that much of a difference.
The Shabaq movement. (Photo by Sheikh Mahmuduzzaman Marshal) Benjamin Ismail is an expert on Asian issues from the press freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders. He explains that though bloggers like Ahmed initially only criticised members of Jamaat-e-Islami, the debate eventually got heated and out of hand. Secular bloggers and radical Islamists got more and more aggressive toward each other, and the latter eventually felt insulted on religious grounds by written attacks from the bloggers. This caused demonstrations with pictures of bloggers being exposed, their deaths were demanded and death lists were published and spread nationwide. On one of those lists, Ahmed’s name was written along with 83 other bloggers . A few days after the list was published online, the government took it down. However, four of the people listed were arrested referring to a law from the time of the British occupation. Ahmed would have been the fifth. He says that the government wanted to appease radical Islamists, who rallied for a blasphemy law that would sentence everyone who insults Islam to death. The situation in Bangladesh is polarised and complex and opinions are suppressed. Reporters Without Borders ranks 129 of 179 on its Freedom of Press Index, and it's one of the poorest countries in the world – ranked 146 out of 186 countries in the Human Development Index.
Blogging refugees from Bangladesh live lives based on lies and fake passports in attempts to escape their home country. According to Bernd Mesovic from the German human rights organisation, Pro Asyl, the approval rate for citizens from Bangladesh is close to zero in Germany. In Sweden, the approval rate is 26. "If Ahmed is transferred from Sweden to Germany, his individual case may stand a chance for approval", says Mesovic. But the process may take up to one and a half years, if not more. If held in Germany, Ahmed will not be allowed to leave the federal state he has been assigned to during this time. And while his case is being tried, currently being 12 months – soon to be changed to nine months – he may not apply for work. In Sweden on the other hand, an asylum seeker may move freely within the country and can even apply for a work permit as long as he possesses a valid passport, which Ahmed has. Ahmed is now suffering from the apathy he is condemned to. “I feel like I am not myself anymore”, he told me. “I just need to do something.”
Now he hopes that Swedish authorities won’t send him to Germany. The Dublin Regulation says that if an asylum seeker stays without hiding for six months in a country in the EU, the country he resides in is responsible for the asylum process. "Sometimes this happens", a spokesperson at the Swedish Migration Board told me. If Ahmed doesn't cooperate with authorities or fail to show up to appointments, his case will be transferred to the police and Ahmed will be moved to Germany by force. Ahmed now tells me that he wants to create a new blog and continue his fight for freedom of speech. After having lost everything already, that's the only thing that will keep him going.
Follow Steffen on Twitter: @SteffenDMeyer