DHAKA: Bangladesh's prime minister has ruled out a new blasphemy law despite a mass campaign by Islamists to introduce the death penalty for bloggers whom they accuse of insulting the Prophet Mohammed.
As part of their push for a change in the law, the Hefajat-e-Islam group on Monday forced the closure of schools and businesses and barricaded inter-city motorways and railways across the country in a general strike.
Police said at least 30 people were injured in clashes between pro-government activists and Islamists, already infuriated by the recent convictions of leading opposition figures for war crimes.
But Sheikh Hasina, who has been leading a secular government in the Muslim-majority country since 2009, said existing laws were adequate to prosecute anyone accused of insulting a religion.
“Actually, we don't have any plan to (bring in a new law). We don't need it,” Hasina told the BBC in an interview broadcast Monday.
“They should know that existing laws are enough,” she added, before stressing that “this country is a secular democracy”.
On Saturday, hundreds of thousands of Islamists rallied in the capital Dhaka to demand a blasphemy law, with provisions for the death penalty for those who defame Islam.
There has been vociferous debate between staunch atheists and fundamentalists in Bangladesh's social media for years, but it took a deadly turn in February when an anti-Islam blogger was murdered.
Four online writers were arrested last week on charges of hurting religious sentiment through their Internet writings against Islam.
Under existing cyber laws, anyone convicted of defaming a religion on the Internet can be jailed for up to 10 years.
Hefajat-e-Islam, which describes itself as a non-political organisation, has given the government until the end of the month to meet a series of demands or face a blockade of the capital.
The group also wants Islamic education to be made mandatory in primary and secondary schools, members of the Ahmadi sect to be declared non-Muslims and the restoration of pledges to Allah in the constitution, which Hasina's government has deleted.
Hasina said her government would “go through all the demands” to see “if there is any reasonable one” which it could act on.
Her party, however, accused Hefajat, which draws its support from the country's tens of thousands of Islamic seminaries, of being a pawn of the opposition.
Wielding sticks, thousands of Hefajat activists clashed with ruling Awami League activists in the port city of Chittagong and northern city of Mymensingh as they barricaded roads and inter-city highways.
At least 30 people including five policemen were injured in the clashes, local police chiefs told AFP, adding they fired tear gas and blank shots to disperse the protesters.
About 2,000 Islamists also barricaded a railway in the eastern Brahmanbaria district, halting trains between the capital Dhaka and Chittagong for about four hours, local police chief M. Moniruzzaman told AFP
Hardline Islamist groups have accused Hasina's government of trying to intimidate the opposition through a series of trials for war crimes allegedly committed during the 1971 war of independence.
Three Islamists have so far been convicted and two of them were sentenced to death. At least 96 people have been killed during protests over the trials since January.