Bangladesh blocks Facebook over caricatures

Bangladesh has blocked social networking website Facebook over caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed and “obnoxious” images of the Muslim-majority country’s leaders.

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The move came after Pakistan banned access to Facebook, video website YouTube and 1200 web pages over a row about “blasphemous” content on the internet.

Facebook was blocked in Bangladesh late Saturday, the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission said.

The move was ordered as cartoons of Mohammed on the popular website “hurt the religious sentiments of the country’s Muslim population”, said BTRC acting chairman Hasan Mahmud Delwar.

“Some links in the site also contained obnoxious images of our leaders including the father of the nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and the leader of the opposition,” he said.

He said Facebook would be re-opened once Bangladesh had permanently blocked the offending pages.

The country’s anti-crime Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) said it had arrested one man over the images of political leaders.

“A special intelligence team arrested him and he has been charged with spreading malice,” senior RAB official Enamul Kabir said.

Kabir said the arrested man used at least six Facebook accounts to post the images but officials declined to give details of the depictions, which were not immediately showing up on the site Sunday.

On Friday thousands of Bangladeshis took to the streets of the capital Dhaka, demanding that the government ban Facebook over what they called “anti-Islamic propaganda”.

The protests were triggered by an “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” campaign on Facebook, which its anonymous promoters said was in defence of freedom of expression.

Cartoon controversy

Muslims regard all depictions of Islam’s founding prophet as blasphemous.

“Drawing caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed is an attack on Islam and is extremely humiliating for Islam,” Dhaka protest organiser A.T.M. Hemayet Uddin told thousands of cheering supporters.

In a counter-demonstration, Dhaka University students held a rally on the campus late Saturday, urging authorities to lift the Facebook block immediately, according to the Daily Star newspaper.

“This was a wrong decision and should be withdrawn immediately,” said Mohammad Zafar Iqbal, professor of Computer Science at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology.

“Instead of freezing the whole system, efforts should be made to find and punish the guilty.”

Publications of similar cartoons in Danish newspapers in 2005 sparked violent protests in Muslim countries.

Deadly demonstrations

Around 50 people were killed in 2006 demonstrations over the cartoons.

Pakistan has restored access to YouTube, but Facebook and 1,200 other web pages remain blocked.

Bangladesh has nearly one million Facebook account holders, according to the BTRC. Hasina and opposition leader Khaleda Zia have fan pages on Facebook.

The site has previously attracted government ire over allegations it spreads pornography and fraudulent money-making schemes.

“There have been growing cyber-crimes related to Facebook and other social networking sites. The laws are inadequate to fight these crimes,” RAB spokesman Mohammad Sohail said.

In March, officers arrested a Dhaka-based stocks tipster with more than 10,000 Facebook followers on charges of manipulating Bangladesh’s stock exchange.

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