Rosie Costa

Rosaline (Rosie) Costa, a Bangladeshi human rights activist, was forced to leave the country in July 2016. In 2017, CSW interviewed her in New York. During the interview, Rosie discussed the reasons she had to leave Bangladesh, and shed light on issues of religious freedom in the country.

Rosalind Costa

Rosie’s involvement in human rights work began in 1986, after she left the community of nuns to which she belonged for 17 years to pursue human rights work. She spent time working with women and children in the garment industry, establishing a hostel for rescued children who had been forced into madrasas (colleges for Islamic instruction), and speaking around the world about issues faced by minorities and particularly Hindus.

Forced To Flee

While Rosie had been no stranger to risk in her work, her fears for her safety grew following a number of killings of Christians in Bangladesh, perpetrated by people claiming to belong to Daesh. “I realised that I was being followed by some people, that’s when I left the country … I saw how the people were killed, so if something was to happen to me nobody would be able to rescue me from these people.”

For years prior to her enforced departure, Rosie faced many challenges. “I received threats when I worked for the garment industry. On many occasions the owners came to pick me up, or sent hoodlums to pick me up, once they broke my hip bone. I have been physically attacked several times, for several nights I got threatening phone calls and I realised it was not safe to stay there anymore because of the way they were killing people in their houses and on the street.”

When asked how she felt about being forced to leave Bangladesh, she replied “I feel I am dead in a way, because I had my livelihood there.”

Rosie also believes that the government has continued to monitor her.

Forced Conversion

Since 2012, Rosie has been involved in rescuing children who were being forced to convert to Islam. She offered some insight into this situation:

“Children were being taken from their parents by pimps who said they would take them to mission schools and they would not have to spend any money on these children. They were taken to madrassas, where they had to sign a paper saying that they had converted to Islam and were ready to die for Islam. They were then split into groups and sent to various madrassas. Most of the children are Christians. I know of over 500 cases of this that took place in 2012. There are many forced marriages every year. I heard of cases of children as young as four or five being kidnapped.”

Extremism

Rosie also highlighted how radical Islam has been a growing problem in the country.

“We have around 147 groups in Bangladesh under various names that are related to Islamic State. Since 2015 they have targeted Christians, many priests and nuns have received death threats. None of the perpetrators have been arrested or even pursued. Last year I think there were 8 or 9 cases where they attacked missions in groups.”

“Recently Islamist terrorists have been attacking journalists, and writers. In the beginning minorities such as Hindus, Buddhists, and Shi’as were the main targets and were regularly killed.”

Religious Minorities

When asked to describe the current situation for the Christian community in Bangladesh, Rosie replied:

“The Christians are having more and more serious problems which I did not see in earlier times. Before 2000, there was one incident in 1998 in which time bombs were thrown into one church, and after that a few similar cases. In 2013-14 there were a few more incidents, but 2015 was worse and it has been getting worse ever since. People are being identified by their religion and as a result are discriminated against by the government as well as by other groups.”

The situation of Hindus is not much better:

“Hindus have been having continuous problems since 1946, but things are getting worse. The main issue is land owned by the Hindus from the days of Hindu majority regions in Bangladesh. Those are the places that are being targeted because if they can evict the Hindus, they will go to India and will be unable to get the land back.”

Government Inaction

The current government is not directly responsible for the problems faced by religious minorities, but its inaction is an issue. CSW asked Rosie what could be done to improve the situation for minorities:

“By not doing anything, the government are indirectly supporting these extremist groups. At this point, unless the government changes the policy and takes some stern actions or decisions to stop this extremism, I don’t think there will be any development in this situation and it will get worse and worse. The prime minister has hardly done anything thus far, not a single arrest has been made, that is why I think extremism is increasing.”

While Rosie was skeptical that the government would bow to international pressure, she thought there were measures that could be taken to improve the situation of the minorities, especially if pressure came from countries giving aid to Bangladesh. For example, the government could recruit people from minorities in every sector, from administration to the army and police. She also suggested a reform of the education system, removing bias religious education materials from schools.

Rosie’s Inspiration

When asked whether there was anything that encouraged or inspired her in her work, Rosie said she was a “peacemaker” and that was her “inspiration and internal peace”, adding, “that’s what I have burned for my whole life: when people came to me with tears and left with smiling faces that was a success.”

By Ellis Heasley, CSW’s Advocacy Assistant

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Bangladesh: How long will impunity rule?

“The culture of impunity can’t go on or violence will increase.” – Ajoy Roy

The words of Ajoy Roy, the frail father of the late Avijit Roy hit us hard. We listened in silence as he shared his despair and disappointment at the lack of judicial process following the murder of his son in 2015. The murder of Avijit Roy, a blogger, made international news and became a case representative of the situation facing not just bloggers but journalists, lawyers, religious leaders and religious minorities in Bangladesh; these members of Bangladesh’s civil society are vulnerable to threats, harassment and attacks.

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Dare I speak? Defending freedoms in Bangladesh

The voices of extremism and violence infiltrating Bangladesh’s society have delivered a clear and frightening message: independent expressions on religious issues will not be tolerated.

A pattern of appalling attacks that began in 2013 and took the lives of four secular bloggers in 2015 shocked the nation and caught the attention of international media. The stream of violence reflects a forceful assault on freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression, theoretically enshrined in Bangladesh’s secular constitution and ratified international conventions.

The need for a clear counter-narrative to fundamentalism

If the values of a secular democracy are to be protected, fundamentalism must be met with a positive counter narrative from governing authorities. Unfortunately, in Bangladesh, neither political leaders nor members of the police force have succeeded in articulating a message of tolerance safeguarding the human rights and freedoms of its citizens.

On 8 August 2015, Niloy Chatterjee was the fourth blogger to be brutally murdered that year following the killings of Avijit Roy on 27 February 2015, Washiqur Rahman Babu on 30 March 2015 and Ananta Bijoy Das on 12 May 2015.

Commenting on Chatterjee’s case, Bangladesh’s police Inspector General, AKM Shahidul Hoque failed minority groups by refusing to condemn the actions of extremists:

“Those who are free thinkers and writers, I request them, please make sure that they don’t cross the line. Anything that might hurt anyone’s religious sentiments and beliefs should not be written.”

Challenged by many, defended by few

The wave of threats and sporadic attacks has led to the exile of many bloggers and social activists who are forced to seek asylum in fear of their lives. Pluralism and secularism are under threat in Bangladesh as the space for diversity and multitude of opinions is challenged by many and defended by few. On 15 February publisher, Shamsuzzoha Manik was arrested after he produced a book deemed offensive to Islam, another case that reveals the government’s accommodation of hard line Islamist groups (in this case Khelafat Andolon, who demanded the detention of the publisher).

In the face of extremism that threatens social order and the personal security of so many – who are often singled out in public threats – the government must respond with clarity and consistency. However, the ruling Awami League Party has remained worryingly ambiguous, a response neither protects nor reassures minorities living under fear of attack throughout the country.

Promise of protection remains unfulfilled

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was elected into office in 2014 on a manifesto pledging that ‘religious rights of every people would be ensured and the state would treat equally with every citizen irrespective of their religion, culture, gender and social status [sic].’ With these words, she assured minority communities that her term would secure them full protection and rights.

However, in recent months, the initially promising pledge has been coupled with contradictory warnings from the government that action would be taken against all who ‘hurt religious sentiment,’ as per the provisions provided in Section 295A of the Criminal Code and the oft misused Article 57 of the Information, Technology and Communication Act (2013).

Reservations in supporting free speech rights of minority groups

The Prime Minister’s son and advisor, Sajeeb Wazed, revealed to some extent the contradictory stance held by the Awami League when he admitted “we are walking a fine line here…we don’t want to be seen as atheists, it doesn’t change our core beliefs. We believe in secularism.” Fearful of perceptions from the broader audience in Bangladesh and the wider Islamic world, the government is allowing pressure from certain groups to take precedence over the security of individual lives and freedoms.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina must continue to encourage and protect the precious freedoms promised to her citizens in the Constitution of Bangladesh with constructive efforts to nurture an atmosphere of tolerance and healthy debate inclusive of a plurality of voices, views and visions.

By CSW’s Bangladesh Desk Officer