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Anti-Muslim Facebook Posts Sparked a Riot in Bangladesh — and 4 People Died

Police say they opened fire after they were surrounded by Muslim protesters. "We had no options."

by David Gilbert
Oct 22 2019, 1:39pm

Police in Bangladesh killed four people after they opened fire on a group of Muslim protesters who were calling for the execution of a Hindu man accused of posting comments criticizing the Prophet Mohammed on Facebook.

But an initial investigation by the government revealed that Biplop Chandra Baddya’s Facebook account had been hacked by Muslim attackers, who then blackmailed the 25-year-old before posting the blasphemous comments.

On Monday, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called for calm, but the incident once again highlights a growing problem in the country where social media has been used to foment religious violence.

“This is not the first incident that happened in Bangladesh in recent years, using the same pattern to spread intolerance against communities with different religion or believe through hacked social media IDs and instigate violence, that claimed innocent lives,” Faruq Faisel, regional director for Bangladesh and South Asia at human rights group Article 19, told VICE News.

The incident began Friday when Biplop’s account posted incendiary comments criticizing the Prophet Mohammed. The comments were also spread virally on the company’s Messenger app, as well as being shared on Facebook

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The 25-year-old student went to the police on Friday night to report his account had been hacked and that the hackers were demanding 20,000 Bangladeshi Taka ($235) or threatening to post blasphemous comments to his Facebook page.

Police in Bhola, the country's largest island, said they were able to identify two people involved in the hack of the Facebook account almost immediately and arrested them Friday evening.

“We have got all information relating to the Facebook hacking,” Sarkar Md Kaiser, superintendent of police in Bhola told the Daily Star.

Despite this, Biplop was arrested at his home on Friday night. He was detained all weekend, and on Monday he was charged with spreading messages demeaning Islam under the Digital Security Act.

Anger in the Muslim community — which makes up 90 percent of Bangladesh’s population — grew over the weekend, as the posts continued to be shared as screenshots via messaging apps.

The man’s home was burned and a dozen other buildings linked to the Hindu community were also vandalized.

Senior police and religious leaders met on Saturday to call for calm, but on Sunday, 20,000 Muslims demonstrated at a prayer ground in Borhanuddin to call for the execution of the 25-year-old Hindu man.

Initially peaceful, the protest soon turned violent as some of the demonstrators began throwing rocks at police officers. The officers barricaded themselves in a nearby compound, but the protesters attempted to break down the door, with the police claiming they feared for their lives.

"The door was about to be broken. The window grill was almost broken. We had put a mattress against the window. We had to fire, we had no options," said AKM Ehsanullah, a senior police official in the Barisal Range, Bangladesh, told CNN.

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The police had initially tried to disperse the crown with pellet guns but this had not worked.

“Our heads would have been crushed by bricks. If they could get inside, we would all have died,” Ehsanullah added. Over 100 protesters were injured in the shooting.

There have been large demonstrations by Muslim groups in Bangladesh since the attack, with leaders condemning the police action and calling for compensation for the families of those killed and injured.

The Bhola superintendent has also had his Facebook account hacked, and his phone number has been spammed with fake phone calls.

This is not the first violent incident in Bangladesh stemming from social media posts. In 2016, Islamic attacked Hindu temples in eastern Brahmanbaria town over a Facebook post that made fun of Islam’s holiest sites. Back in 2012, several Buddhist monasteries were set on fire by Muslim extremists after a post showing the desecration of the Quran was posted by a fake Facebook account of a Buddhist youth.

Sunday’s incident once again shows how governments and tech giants are struggling to prevent the spread of hate speech, especially in non-English speaking markets around the world.

Facebook has been widely criticized for failing to invest sufficient resources into combating the problem in countries where minorities are targeting with this type of abuse, as recent incidents in India and Myanmar have shown.

“States and companies are failing to prevent ‘hate speech’ from becoming the next ‘fake news’, an ambiguous and politicized term subject to governmental abuse and company discretion,” Faisel said. “Though violence motivated by hatred on grounds of religion or belief is frequent and widespread, the recent acts of extreme violence in Bangladesh has brought into sharp relief the imperative to take action to protect rights and address the root causes of hate.”

Facebook has not responded to a request to comment on the incident.

Cover: Members of Hefazat-e-Islam take part in a protest in Dhaka on October 22, 2019, two-days after deadly clashes when police shot Bangladeshi Muslims protesting over Facebook messages that allegedly defamed the Prophet Mohammed. (Photo by MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

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