Bangladesh authorities on Wednesday announced a re-opening of mosques, despite a steep daily increase in coronavirus infections in recent days, while tightening a clampdown on speech critical of the government.
The government’s move came in response to pressure from religious leaders, and was conditioned on participants adhering to safety precautions, a senior official said, adding that the re-opening applied only to Muslim houses of worship.
“All mosques will be open to public for mass prayers on Thursday after Zohr prayers.” Sheikh Md Abdullah, state minister for religious affairs, told BenarNews, referring to noon-time rituals.
“There was strong pressure on the government to open the mosques. Islamic scholars were demanding it. We are opening mosques considering their demands, on condition of adhering to health safety guidelines.”
Mass public worship has been banned nationwide due to coronavirus contagion fears since April 6. Confirmed infections have been ramping up sharply for the last two weeks, reaching 11,719 on Wednesday after 790 people tested positive in the last 24 hours. A total of 186 deaths have been reported.
At the same time, authorities have been cracking down on speech deemed to be anti-government, misinformation or rumors. The paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion police unit on Wednesday filed a “First Information Report” (FIR) against 11 people under the Digital Security Act.
The people named were “spreading rumors about the coronavirus” on Facebook and using “defamatory language … that may destroy the government’s image,” according to the FIR, which is a formal police complaint, obtained by BenarNews.
Four were immediately arrested under 2018 draconian law that allows people to be detained based on suspicion of wrongdoing. Those arrests brought to nine the number of people arrested under the act thus far this month, including five journalists and a cartoonist.
‘Limitations in healthcare’
Leaders of Islamic organizations, including Hefazat-e-Islam chief Allama Ahmed Shafi, hailed the decision to open mosques, but it came as a surprise to many.
“The number of coronavirus patients is increasing every day. We discussed the situation and the possible outcome of opening businesses at a meeting of the National Committee Regarding COVID-19 on Tuesday,” said Kanak Kanti Barua, vice-chancellor of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University in Dhaka.
“The health minister himself in the meeting said that more people will contract coronavirus if business and religious sites open,” Barua told BenarNews, referring to Zahid Maleque. “I agree with him and I expressed the same view in the meeting.”
“We have limitations in healthcare in Bangladesh. We neither have the ability, nor the structures and facilities to serve thousands of coronavirus patients,” he said.
Mustafizur Rahman of the Dhaka-based think tank Center for Policy Dialogue noted that most countries were re-opening when infections were declining, not increasing.
“It is going to be a dangerous decision to open up businesses when the maximum number of corona-positive patients are still being identified,” he told BenarNews.
Tens of thousands of Bangladeshi garment workers went back to work in late April, and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced Monday that cottage industries, markets and small enterprises could reopen as long as health and safety standards were maintained.
Earlier Wednesday, the ministry issued a circular outlining health and safety guidelines for mosques reopening amid the pandemic. Mosques must not use carpets, but must sterilize the floor before every worship service and provide hand sanitizer or soap to worshippers to use before entering, it said.
Worshippers must perform pre-prayer ablutions at home, wear masks to mosque and stand three feet apart. Children, the elderly, the sick, and those caring for sick people must stay home.
Cartoonist, writers arrested
A cartoonist and two expatriate journalists were among those cited Wednesday for allegedly spreading rumors.
Tasnim Khalil and Shahed Alam published content about Bangladesh while in Sweden and the United States, respectively. Ahmed Kishore had been posting original satirical cartoons about the pandemic on his Facebook page.
Kishore was immediately arrested, along with IT specialist and activist Didarul Islam Bhuiyan, writer Mushtaq Ahmed, and business owner Minhaz Mannan Emon, police sources told BenarNews.
Minhaz is the brother of Xulhaz Mannan, who was among a string of activists and intellectuals killed by Muslim extremists between 2013 and 2018.
“They have been arrested on charges of spreading anti-government remarks and rumors regarding the coronavirus situation and various law enforcement agencies,” Police Sub-Inspector Jamshedul Alam said.
On World Press Freedom Day, May 3, Amnesty International said some governments were using the COVID-10 pandemic “as a pretext to crack down on critical voices.”
Amnesty noted that BenarNews itself has been blocked inside Bangladesh since it reported on an internal U.N. memo leaked in late March estimating that Bangladesh could see as many as two million deaths as a result of the pandemic without interventions.