By Rory Wade
On April 25 a group of five to six men posing as deliverymen hacked two LGBT activists to death in their Dhaka apartment. Xulhaz Mannan – the editor of the country’s first LGBT magazine – and Tanay Mojumdar – another LGBT rights activist – were murdered in an attack that has been claimed by Ansar al-Islam, the Bangladeshi subdivision of al Qaeda. Mannan’s mother and maid were also in the flat at the time of the attack. Both are alive.
The attack came only weeks after the public murder of Bangladeshi blogger and law student Nazimuddin Samad who often criticized the government – which by constitution is supposed to be secular – and Islam in his blog posts. The night before he was attacked, Samad posted a critique of the government and the “deterioration of law and order” on his Facebook page. He was assaulted with machetes before being shot while walking home from class.
Samad was on a “hit-list” of 84 atheist bloggers, writers and activists that a group of Islamist militants sent to Bangladesh’s interior ministry in 2013. The list came following anti-Islamist street protests in the South Asian nation’s capital, Dhaka. The rallies, which saw tens of thousands of secular activists demand capital sentences for Islamist leaders found guilty of war crimes during the country’s 1971 fight for independence from Pakistan. Samad was the sixth so-called “atheist blogger” to be killed since the publishing of the list. But the list of targets has since broadened to include members of Bangladesh’s religious minorities and two foreigners.
With the high level of threats towards these activists, the government has come under scrutiny for not doing enough to prevent the attacks. “The brutal killing today of an editor of an LGBTI publication and his friend, days after a university professor was hacked to death, underscores the appalling lack of protection being afforded to a range of peaceful activists in the country” said Champa Patel, Amnesty International’s South Asia director while speaking on the recent killings of Mannan and Mojumdar.
“It is shocking that no one has been held to account for these horrific attacks” she added. Despite the conviction of seven men for a 2013 attack, most of the murders have gone unsolved and unpunished. This may be in part because Bangladesh is a poor country with a badly resourced police force.
According to Amnesty, rather than offering security, police have warned LGBT activists to be “less provocative”.
While commenting on the murder of Nazimuddin Samad, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan said no one has the right to attack religious leaders and that the blogger’s writings will be scrutinized by the government.
Responding to the pressure on her government to tackle the increase of violent extremism, the nation’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has blamed the main opposition party, the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party (BNP) and it’s Islamist political ally, Jamaat e-Islami (JEI), for the latest attacks: “The BNP-Jamaat nexus has been engaged in such secret and heinous murders in various forms to destabilise the country… Such killings are staged in a planned way,” she said.
Sheikh Hasina – Bangladesh’s second female PM – has also previously pointed the finger at Britain and unnamed Arab countries for tolerating a rise and spread of radical Islamist ideas, and in some cases nurturing and funding hard-line groups.
“The British government should take more steps on the ground. Jamaat has a strong influence in east London. They are collecting money, they are sending money” she said.
However Hasina’s son Sajeeb Wazed said his mother couldn’t come out in support of secular writers and activists due to opposition from religious parties in the country. “We don’t want to be seen as atheists. It doesn’t change our core beliefs. We believe in secularism” he said. “But given that our opposition party plays that religion card against us relentlessly, we can’t come out strongly for the bloggers. It’s about perception, not about reality.”
With many secular activists now seeking refuge in other countries and demanding protection the police are unable to give, it seems poverty-ridden Bangladesh is experiencing an overall inability to get to grips with extremism, Dhaka analysts say. This is in part due to fractured political space, where legitimate criticism and debate are restricted. As well as this government curbs on press, television and social media have been blamed for a lack of scrutiny of the growth of religious extremism and of the meek official response to Islamist attacks. This in turn has derailed freedom of thought in the country and a lack of protection for those who express secular views in the Muslim majority nation.