Human rights group demands release of Bangladeshi cartoonist

Dhaka, Bangladesh - Human rights watchdog Amnesty International has demanded the immediate release of a Bangladeshi cartoonist whom the military-backed interim government arrested for allegedly insulting Islam.

Mohammed Arifur Rahman, a former cartoonist for the Bengali-language daily Prothom Alo, is "a prisoner of conscience" who was detained for exercising his legitimate right to freedom of expression, Amnesty International said in a statement Friday.

Security officials arrested Rahman on Sept. 18 after hard-line Islamic groups protested against one of his cartoons that they said mocked the Prophet Muhammad.

The Interior Ministry charged Rahman with "hurting the religious sentiments of the people" and detained him for 30 days. His detention was later extended by three months.

Rahman's cousin questioned whether the cartoonist's arrest was legal, and said it had caused the family immeasurable hardship.

"We have decided to file a writ petition with the High Court challenging the legality of his detention," Jewel Ahmed said. "He is the main breadwinner of the four-member family."

Amnesty International said Rahman faces a maximum two years in prison if he is convicted.

Abdul Karim, a secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs, said Saturday that he had not heard about the watchdog's statement and that Rahman's case was a sensitive issue.

"The whole thing is under legal process," Karim told The Associated Press by phone, without elaborating.

The government confiscated all copies of Alpin, the Prothom Alo supplement in which the cartoon was printed. The popular daily apologized for publishing the cartoon and fired the cartoonist.

Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority nation of 150 million people, has in the past banned publications for insulting Islam or the Prophet Muhammad.

Journalists in Bangladesh are routinely threatened, assaulted or killed for writing about political violence, corruption or organized crime, according to media rights groups. At least 11 journalists have been killed and dozens maimed in the South Asian nation since 1997, media rights groups say.