Beleaguered Bloggers of Bangladesh
“Perhaps it is better to die than to live with your head down,” said Nazimuddin Samad, an atheist blogger. His words were almost prophetic. Samad, 28 a student of law at the Jagannath University in the capital Dhaka, was the most recent victim of the violent rejection of secular views. At about 8.30 pm on April 6, 2016, he was killed in the crowded Sutrapur area by suspected Islamist militants chanting “Allahu Akbar” as they shot and hacked him to death. Nazimuddin, an activist of the Ganajagaron Mancha’s Sylhet wing, regularly posted atheist and feminist critiques of Islam on his Facebook page. With his murder, the death toll of bloggers reached seven. At least six other secular bloggers and online activists have been killed over the last three years.
Bangladesh led its efforts to gag freethinkers with attacks on two fronts: brutal killings by Islamic militants and arrests by the government. Beside the summary executions of bloggers and atheists by Islamic activists, the government is silencing them by arresting and throwing them into prison for long periods under a draconian Information Technology & Communication Act, 2006, made more stringent by an amendment in 2013.
The most recent victim of the law was Shamsuzzoha Manik, a 75-year-old secular author and publisher who has been languishing in prison since February 15, 2016. He was arrested under Section 57 of the Information and Communications Technology Act for his books which were deemed to be “critical of Islam”. The authorities at first closed down the publisher’s booth at Bangladesh’s national book fair.
This is not the first time a book stall has been shut down on grounds of hurting religious sentiments. Last year, Rodela Prokashani (Rodela Publishers) faced the same consequence for their translation of a book about the Prophet Muhammad’s life. The website of the publishing house was hacked and the publisher faced death threats over the book.
Many publishers and secular authors have fled the country fearing attacks over their works. Others are too scared to speak out amidst erosion of freedom of speech and the rise of religious extremism which has been manifested in recent times by attacks on bloggers.
Birth of blogging
The online movement in Bangladesh started in chat forums in 2001 and then found a home on a blog called Mukto Mona (‘Freethinker’), founded by Avijit Roy who was killed in 2015. At the turn of the millennium, few people in Bangladesh had access to the Internet, and the impact of the site was limited. That changed three years later, with the immergence of ‘Somewherein’ blog, the first Bangla language blogging platform after the introduction of software that converted a standard keyboard into a Bangla phonetic keyboard. Around the same time, the government removed the prohibitively expensive taxes on laptop computers, and prices dropped drastically. Internet access on mobile phones further encouraged engagement of the general public and the growth of a new generation of Bengalis, who were now exposed to the open exchange of ideas. Today, over 61 million people in Bangladesh use the Internet, as compared with just one million a decade ago.
Battle of the blogs
Most of the secular bloggers in Bangladesh are activists engaged in a mission of challenging Islamic fundamentalism online. The bloggers are poets, novelists, humorists, essayists and playwrights, mostly involved in other professions for their livelihood. They operate on the edge of fear, and are reluctant to complain to the police about threats and intimidation. Many bloggers use pseudonyms, and going to the police means that their identities and addresses have to be disclosed. ‘Ishwar Kona’ is the pen-name of a third-year university student of physics. The young blogger is getting regular threats of rape and death, as she espouses feminist views, promotes scientific beliefs and criticizes religion. She is afraid of being raped and killed, but she has not filed a case in any police station. “I will have to disclose my identity and address to the police…. I will also have to disclose that I am an atheist and I criticize religion. The police may take exception to it,” she says. Kona is also afraid of annoying her own family members by exposing herself. Asked why she is afraid even though she is hiding her identity by using a pseudonym, Kona said, “Rajib Ahmed [Haider] used to write as ‘Thaba Baba’. But he was the first to be killed.”
Militant Islamists are also increasingly using the Internet as a tool to recruit followers, threaten enemies and rally ideological soul mates to jihad. They have waged hate campaigns on social media against secular writers. Secular bloggers are facing Islamist militants on Facebook, Twitter and, above all, on the writing platforms that have proliferated in Bangladesh during the last decade — even as it has cost some of them their lives.
In recent times, Bangladesh has seen the use of social media to incite hatred and action against writers, activists and minorities. In 2012, an image of a burnt Quran was posted using a fake account on Facebook, creating outrage in Ramu, a southern area of Bangladesh where seven Buddhist temples were burnt down as a consequence. Radical Islamic writers and Islamic bloggers are professing fanaticism, spreading communal venom and trying to damage the social fabric by instigating communal violence or riot. While secular and atheist writers also use Facebook to articulate their opinions and disseminate their views, practically, the platform has become difficult for them. Amidst threats, they cannot write openly, and most of them use pseudonyms. Even then, Islamist campaigners report the Facebook IDs of the secular writers and Facebook authorities have been known to block these IDs according to their policies. As a result the bloggers have lost a platform and also their previous write ups.
After the murder of Nazimuddin Samad on April 6, 2016, a huge number of people wrote on the pages of Islamists, ‘rejoicing’ his murder. Most of the supporters of the murder are activists of Hefazat or other Islamic groups. Some of them are vowing afresh to kill the atheist bloggers. Yet, none of these Facebook users are being reined in.
After militant outfits such as Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (Awakened Muslim Masses of Bangladesh), and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) carried out over 500 bombings across the country in a single day on August 17, 2005, the government cracked down on them and declared a zero-tolerance policy against extremism. Bangladeshis who returned to the country from abroad were arrested for attempting to recruit its citizens to join the so-called Islamic State.
Meanwhile, the battle against terrorism took a new turn at the start of the trial of Islamist collaborators of the Pakistani Army during the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh for the horrific genocide of the Bengali people. On February 5, 2013, a special tribunal sentenced Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Quader Molla to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity committed during the Liberation War in 1971. Freedom fighters, war victims and their families, secular activists and people from cross sections could not accept the verdict. People started to demonstrate in different parts of the country including capital Dhaka demanding death penalty for the war criminal.
Bloggers and Online Activists Network (BOAN) staged protests in Shahbag Square; millions of people started to pour into the demonstrations which began to be called the Ganajagaran Mancha (‘Mass Awakening Platform’). It turned into a public movement in support of the secular demands including the ban of Jamaat. The one-and-a half-month-long demonstration finally led to amendment of law and Molla’s hanging in 2013.
However, the support to secularism and freedom of expression however has somewhat diminished since the early upsurge.
The arrest of Shamsuzzoha Manik, the latest of its kind, saw little protest in Bangladesh except two human-chains formed by a handful of his well-wishers and activists. Secular bloggers and online activists, however, criticized his arrest. No organization of journalists or other professionals in Bangladesh staged a protest programme or issued any press statement condemning the attack on press freedom.
This is in sharp contrast to the public outburst that followed the first killing of a blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider in February 2013 by machete-wielding assailants who were later found to have links to the banned outfit Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), also called Ansar-Al-Islam Bangladesh, the Bangladesh chapter of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. Rajib’s coffin was carried through Shahbag Square in a public protest attended by about a million people. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself condemned the killing strongly, paid tribute to the victim terming him a ‘martyr’ and also consoled the bereaved family. Then came the second incident of the hacking to death of prominent blogger Avijit Roy in 2015. But by this time, Sheikh Hasina did not dare to publicly denounce the murder. She offered a private condolence to Roy’s father through a phone call. More recently, the prime minister advised writers to refrain from distorting religious beliefs. When she did not publicly condemn Roy’s murder, her son and adviser, Sajeeb Wazed, told media, “We are walking a fine line here. We don’t want to be seen as atheists.”
However, public reaction against the killing of Avijit Roy was huge. Noted personalities of the country in a condolence meeting vowed to be united against such attacks in order to save secular Bangladesh. But the spirit was not visible following the subsequent attacks. Fear took the place of public protests, and the number of people willing to condemn these killings shrank, as pens were being stopped every moment in Bangladesh.
Between silence and violence
The Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ), the federation of trade unions of journalists in Bangladesh split into two in 1992, resulting in the division of its constituent Dhaka Union of Journalists (DUJ) both with sharp political identities. Nearly 70 percent journalists are members of the secular faction of the BFUJ which is dominated by the supporters of the Awami League, while leftists and politically neutral journalists are also its members. The remaining 30 percent are members of the other faction, which is dominated by supporters of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh and other Islamic parties. This faction has undergone a further division this year.
Significantly, none of these factions staged any protest against the killings of the bloggers or arrest of writers, publishers and bloggers. The main faction, loyal to Awami League, does not want to say anything or do anything which might be embarrassing for the government. Some of its leaders fear being cornered or losing government benefits. There is also a fear that the parties, which are anti-liberation and allied to religion-based communal parties, might gain if they criticize the present government and take a strong stance against it. They also feel that the ongoing war crimes trial would be hampered if the pro-Islamist political parties gain due to anti-government protests by the seculars. Another reason for silence is also that many themselves do not approve of the atheist bloggers.
The other faction of the BFUJ strongly dislikes the secular and atheist bloggers, who are virtually their political enemies. Pro-opposition organizations would not protest against blogger killings as they already dub bloggers as ‘infidels’ and ‘enemies of Islam’.
There are nearly one hundred organizations of journalists across Bangladesh, including the National Press Club, Dhaka Reporters Unity and Editors Council, which are supposed to be committed to press freedom. But not a single one stood up for the bloggers. In this situation a new organisation of professional journalists named ‘Media Activists for Secular Bangladesh’ formed in April 2013 organized a ‘Public Resistance and Solidarity Rally’ in front of the National Press Club in Dhaka on November 2, 2015 to protest against the attacks on publishers and bloggers. Publishers in Dhaka also formed a human chain keeping the shutters of their publishing houses down for a half-day in reaction to attacks on publishers Faisal Arefin Dipan who was killed and Ahmed Rashid Tutul who was attacked but survived.
Bangladesh Chhatra (Students) League (BCL), the largest student organization in the country, also did not protest the killings of bloggers. The organization which had a vanguard role in various democratic movements over the years, did not even issue a statement against the killings. As the student wing of ruling Awami League, BCL would not stage any protest programme.
Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal (JCD), the second largest student organization, which is loyal to the largest opposition party BNP, did not condemn the killings or attacks as it has a lenient view towards the Islamists, with whom the BNP is in alliance.
Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), the third largest student organization, is directly opposed to the atheists and secularists. However, it issued a statement condemning the killings. ICS is the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, leaders of which are being tried for genocide and crimes against humanity committed during the country’s liberation war in 1971.
Left-leaning student organizations including the Bangladesh Chhatra (Students) Union (BSU), Samajtantrik Chhatra Front, Chhatra Moyitry, Chhatra League (student wing of Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal) and Chhatra Federation while protesting the killings of the bloggers, do not support their atheist views in public, since that would be unpopular and risky.
The Ganajagaron Mancha (‘Mass Awakening Platform’) which emerged after the Shahbag protests of 2013, as well as small groups of cultural and secular political activists, bloggers and online activists are also protesting the attacks with their limited abilities. Bloggers are active to protest the brutalities through their writings.
The struggle over revoking Islam as the state religion of the country witnessed a recent setback when the High Court on March 28, 2016, dismissed on technical grounds a petition filed in 1988 challenging the constitutional validity of Islam being declared as the state religion.
Overall, barring a few prominent citizens and secularists, the activism of all the professional organizations in Bangladesh is marked by a reluctance to speak out. They are either with the semi-secular government or with the opposition alliance of nationalists and Islamists.
As for the feelings among the masses, most lay persons are not acquainted with the writings of atheist bloggers. They might have heard about them from others. Internet density in Bangladesh, though increasing, is still poor in relation to the population. Those who use the Internet mostly use it for emailing or for Facebook, more for personal sharing than politics or philosophy. Yet, most common people though they might not like posts criticizing their prophet, Quran and Islam, will not react violently unless mobilized to do so. They might just ignore the post or some might post vituperative comments against the bloggers. Few of them, however would vow to go on a Jihad.
Death threats and attacks on secular writers and free thinkers by religious extremists also are not new. Back in 1992, author Taslima Nasrin came under attack for her writing and her novel Lajja was banned by the government. Mullahs issued a fatwa for her death, and she had to flee the country and has not been able to return. In 1999, the police spoke of the emergence of the Harkat-ul-Jihad when the poet Shamsur Rahman was attacked. Religious extremist groups swung into action again with the attack in 2004 on noted secular writer Humayun Azad, the guru of free thinkers in Bangladesh. He survived the vicious assassination attempt but few months later he was found dead in his apartment in Munich in Germany.
However, these stray incidents have acquired a systematic pattern in recent years and the extremists have apparently made it their mission to kill the bloggers one after another. Jamaat-e-Islami and some other Islamist political parties are believed to be nurturing the extremist groups.
Bangladesh has a long history of secular democratic movements. The folk lifestyle and tradition of the country also nourishes a diversity of beliefs and pluralism. People in general have stood in unity against extremists and communal forces, and opposition to terrorism runs deep, and this is in opposition to Islamic extremism which has been brewing in Bangladesh since the early- to mid-1990s, as men began returning from fighting with the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Exposure to more radical forms of Islam in Gulf States among migrant workers in recent decades has also been a contributing factor. Privately-financed Islamic education facilities, known as ‘Qaumi madrasas’, are often breeding grounds for radical Islamic thinking, and this has seen the institutions draw sharp criticism from atheist and secularist bloggers.
In Bangladesh, secular and atheist bloggers are being targeted by Islamist militants and Islamic bloggers. Why are atheists and free-thinkers in Bangladesh becoming targets of the jihadists? These free-thinkers, who think with logic, who are free from religious superstitions, are contributing to building a truly secular ideology for Bangladesh. On the contrary the Jihadists want to establish orthodox Islamic rule and Shariah Law. So the secular bloggers are ideological enemies of the Islamists. They are trying to annihilate the free thinkers and secular bloggers to protect their philosophy standing on the very basis of their philosophy. The ABT claimed responsibility for the attacks on all the bloggers.
The list of the bloggers killed one after another has been available with the law enforcing agencies since May 2013. Two Islamist organizations, Hefazat-e-Islam and Anjuman Al Bayyinat, on March 31, 2013, formally handed over handed over a list of 56 ‘atheist’ bloggers. They also provided another short list of 27 bloggers. Basher Kella, a Facebook page operated by Jamaat-e-Islami and Islami Chattra Shibir, published a list of 84 bloggers at that time, which contained the names of all 56 bloggers including the slain bloggers Ahmed Razib Haider, Avijit Roy, Ananta Bijoy Das and Niladri Chatterjee.
The country has experienced an average of at least one horrific attack per month carried out by Islamist activists since February 2013.
Role of mainstream media
The mainstream media of Bangladesh in general supported the secular movement of the Ganajagaran Mancha while four Bangla language daily newspapers —Amar Desh, Naya Diganta, Inquilab and Sangram— were explicitly backing the Islamist-Nationalist opposition alliance led by the Jamaat-e-Islami and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), who were lenient towards the war crime accused and convicts. These newspapers presented the demonstration of the secularists negatively in a ploy to dismantle the movement. Amar Desh pioneered the effort of dissuading people from the Ganajagaran Mancha by running reports and articles branding the bloggers as ‘atheists’ and naming some of them. Amar Desh also called upon believers to protect Islam from the hand of these bloggers besmirching Islam and its prophet.
Bloggers were not well known to the public until then, as most of the people had no access to internet. The publication of their names by the newspapers made the bloggers vulnerable to attacks. Amar Desh also published the blog opinion of slain blogger Rajib Haider to incite people. The Daily Inquilab, which had earlier created instances of contributing to communal violence against minority Hindus by instigating Muslims with false and provocative reports and commentaries, followed suit.
Following the reports, Hefazat-e-Islam, a hardline group, publicly sought the execution of atheist bloggers, who organized the Ganajagaron Mancha. Hefazat staged a massive counter-protest against the bloggers on May 5, 2013 that unleashed violence and left nearly 50 people dead.
Allama Ahmad Shafi, Amir of Hefazat-e-Islam, also issued fatwa (edict) on April 18, 2014 saying: “It has become a duty (Wajib) for the Muslims to kill atheists”.
At least seven bloggers have been killed by the fanatics since 2013 movement of Hefazat-e-Islam seeking the execution of atheists. Hefazat published a list of 84 bloggers and demanded their arrest. On April 2 2013, government arrested three bloggers Subrata Adhikari Shuvo, Russel Parvez and Mashiur Rahman Biplob out of the list. Another blogger Asif Mohiuddin was arrested the next day to appease Hefazat-e-Islam. The government also shutdown Asif Mohiuddin’s blog.
The media of Bangladesh covered the killings of bloggers with due importance. Editorials were published censuring the murders. But the organizations of the journalists did not launch protest programmes against the attacks and arrests of the secular bloggers and writers.
The Inquilab was founded by a late war crime accused Mawlana Mannan and now inherited by his son. The daily Amar Desh is owned by a former bureaucrat, Mahmudur Rahman, a close aide of BNP chief Khaleda Zia. The Daily Sangram is the unofficial mouthpiece of Jamaat-e-Islami. The war crimes tribunal in Bangladesh found the newspaper’s backing in the 1971 genocide. War crime convict Mir Quasem Ali is the owner of the Naya Diganta newspaper. Amar Desh editor Mahmudur Rahman was also arrested — a month after the bloggers — for inciting unrest. When that happened, the heads of 15 news outlets railed against the government for cracking down on ‘freedom of expression’. They demanded immediate release of the arrested editor, but mentioned nothing about the four bloggers — who were also incarcerated.
Some secular bloggers have criticized the media for its narrowness and biases saying the mainstream media’s definition of ‘freedom of expression’ in the country means having an atmosphere that allows them to sell politicized information. Blogger Rasel Pervez after his release from jail criticized the media saying, “The media outlets actually control freedom of expression by means completely under their control. They decide which opinion is worth publishing, and then find out the writer who can serve them the best.”
Says blogger Prithu Sanyal, “Scope to write in the newspapers is always narrow in Bangladesh. There is hardly any newspaper, which would dare to write against popular beliefs. Blogs and social sites gave me the scope, and I utilize it. Certainly I am an atheist. Don’t I have the right to say that I’m an atheist? You propagate your religious faiths freely. Don’t I have the right to publicize my beliefs?”
Ironically, the voice of Islamists is not controlled; they speak in radio, television and newspapers and propagate Islam including on State-run radio and television. But the mouths of the believers of other religions or faiths are taped; they can hardly speak in radio, television or newspapers to preach their faiths. Science and logic is not forbidden, but illogical religious points cannot be debated. The only media is internet to keep the door open, but Islamist extremists are intolerant of this free expression of faiths through internet. The propagation of the single faith contributed to rise of fanaticism and militancy by damaging the pluralistic nature of Bengali society.
The legal muzzle
The Information and Communication Technology (ICT) (Amendment) Act, 2006 was enacted swiftly by the previous regime during the final weeks of its last term in power. In addition to addressing various forms of hacking, breach of data, interference with computer systems and hardware and “crimes committed using a computer” the law criminalizes the publication of anything likely to “prejudice the image of the State” or “hurt religious belief”. At least six writers and bloggers were arrested over the last three years. Newspapers which have online version are also affected by the law, as are authors, who can be prosecuted under the law if their books have e-versions.
The law was amended by an Ordinance and passed by the Parliament on October 9, 2013. The amendment tightened the law by making the offences non-bailable and non-referable and laying down a minimum sentence of 7 years imprisonment and increasing the maximum penalty to 14 years, from the original ten.
This law which is being used against bloggers, is a de-facto blasphemy law, carrying a maximum of 14 years and minimum of seven years imprisonment, and the accused under this law are generally denied bail. The ICT law has been challenged in the High Court. The government, however, says that it would enact a new law to check cyber crimes soon revoking the ICT Act to resolve the issues of conflict.
The government on November 18, 2015 blocked Facebook and other social networks after the Supreme Court upheld the death sentences of two war crime convicts arguing that a ban was necessary in order to deter provocative propaganda that might instigate violence. The blockade continued for 22 days, though there was no sign of violence, depriving people of their rights to express their opinion and feelings. Rather than using the social media to increase awareness and keep people updated with the proper information, the government instead opted for a policy of darkness.
This is not the first time that social networking sites have been banned in Bangladesh. In 2009, Bangladesh blocked Facebook temporarily after a paramilitary revolt in the country left 57 army officers dead. In 2010, Facebook was again banned after satirical images of the Prophet Muhammad were uploaded on the site and shared. The government also temporarily blocked the messaging services of Viber and Tango in January 2015 after they became a popular way of mobilizing activists for anti-government protests.
Atheists have the same rights as any other believers in Bangladesh, as its constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression. But the government functionaries have regularly called for bloggers to stop criticism of religion and even pursued criminal proceedings against some under Section 57 of the country’s Information and Communication Technology Act, a de-facto blasphemy law.
A symptom of muzzling the bloggers is also explicit in some remarks of government functionaries. The country’s police chief AKM Shahidul Hoque warned bloggers to censor themselves if they did not want to be targeted or hurt. “No one should cross the limit,” he said. The police chief’s statement reveals a serious problem in the mindset of law enforcement officials, which has contributed to the climate of impunity for killings of atheists or critics.
Of more concern, political leaders are abdicating their responsibility to protect bloggers. In the latest response of its kind, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina categorically washed her hands off any responsibility to protect bloggers. On April 14, 2016, she sharply criticized bloggers who were already vulnerable to deadly attacks by extremist religious forces and arrests by the government. The Prime Minister said, “We perform our religious rituals. But, if anyone writes filthy words against our religion, why should we tolerate that? Why should the government take responsibility if such writings lead to any untoward incidents? Everyone should maintain decency. Or else the government wouldn’t take the responsibility for any uncivilized attitude.”
hile ‘decency’ and ‘civilized attitudes’ are open to interpretation, it must be remembered that Bangladesh is a democracy and its Prime Minister is bound by oath to ensure equal legal protection for all the citizens of the country in accordance with the country’s constitution. Article 27 of Bangladesh constitution lays down that “All citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law.” Article 28 (1) lays down that “The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.” Freedom of thought and conscience, freedom of speech and expression and freedom of the press are also guaranteed by the constitution of Bangladesh.
Need for unity
In such a context, where fundamental rights and constitutional guarantees are being rapidly eroded, rights organizations and journalist unions must unite to stop religious extremism in Bangladesh from curbing freedom of expression. It is necessary to organize legal defence and protection of the bloggers. Equally important is constant monitoring of the situation and influencing the government through statements. Atheist bloggers need to be united to voice their opinions in more structured ways and the global community must come forward to offer asylum in crucial situations. It is heartening to note that despite the threats, bloggers have not given in. Hundreds of atheist bloggers and online activists are still found active on Facebook and on blogs, even though most of them use pen names for their safety.
Chronology of attacks on bloggers
On January 15, 2013, Mohiuddin, 31, an atheist blogger, was attacked by a group of unidentified young men with machetes in the capital Dhaka; he survived the attack. Mohiuddin, a winner of the BOBs award for online activism, was on an Islamist hit list. The Islamist fundamentalist group Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) claimed responsibility for the attack. Later in April 2013, Asif was arrested along with three other secular bloggers for “hurting religious sentiments”. Under a constant barrage of death threats after his release, Asif Mohiuddin escaped to Germany, where he was granted asylum.
On February 15, 2013, the body of atheist blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider, 32, was found lying in a pool of blood near his house at Mirpur in Dhaka City. Haider, an architect, was the first secular blogger in Bangladesh to be killed. His body bearing several stab wounds was mutilated to the point that his friends could hardly recognize him.
Haider was an activist of Shahbag movement and used to write against Jamaat-Shibir and war criminals on different blogs under the pseudonym ‘Thaba Baba’. His killers were members of an Islamist outfit, Ansarullah Bangla Team according to findings of a court. On December 31, 2015, a speedy trial tribunal pronounced verdict on the killing of Ahmed Rajib Haider. The verdict in which two Islamist militants were sentenced to death and six others sent to prison for their role in hacking him to death has been rejected by his relatives and the blogger community of the country. Haider’s family called it a ‘farcical verdict’ since the prime accused Redwanul Azad Rana had not even been arrested, and all the killers were not given the highest punishment.
On March 7, 2013, atheist blogger Sunnyur Rahaman was attacked by two persons with machetes near Purabi Cinema Hall in Mirpur in Dhaka. With the assistance of the police he was rushed to Dhaka Medical College and Hospital with wounds on his head, neck and limbs. Sunnyur was an activist of the Shahbag movement and a critic of all religions including Islam. He is also critical of religion-based parties including the Jamaat-e-Islami.
Mahbub Raihan and Ullash Das
On March 30, 2014, two Facebook activists Kazi Mahbubur Rahman Raihan and Ullash Das were attacked by members of the student group Islami Chhatra Shibir at their school, Chittagong College. Raihan and Das survived the attack and were later arrested and jailed for “insulting Islam”.
On November 15, 2014, Rajshahi University teacher Shafiul Islam was struck with sharp weapons by several youths when he was on his way home in the afternoon. He suffered grave injuries on his head and shoulder, and died at the Rajshahi Medical College and Hospital.
The sociology teacher was by faith a Baul, a syncretic folk religion similar to Sufism. Many people belonging to both Hindu and Muslim communities in Bangladesh practice the Baul path, which opposes communal divisions among people and advocates a lifestyle free of religious and social dogma.
A fundamentalist Islamist militant group Ansar al Islam Bangladesh-2 claimed responsibility for the attack. On a social media website, the group declared: “Our Mujahideens [fighters] executed a ‘Murtad’ [apostate] today in Rajshahi who had prohibited female students in his department to wear burka [veil].” The website also quoted a 2010 article from the Daily Sangram newspaper, the mouthpiece of Jamaat-e-Islami, which stated that “Professor Shafiul Islam, while being the chair of the sociology department, recruited teachers on condition of being clean-shaved and not wearing kurta-pajamas. He barred female students from wearing burka in classes. This led to many students abandoning burka against their will.”
On February 26, 2015, bio-engineer Dr. Avijit Roy, 43, a well-known Bangladeshi-American blogger, and his wife Bonya Ahmed were attacked by machete-wielding assailants at a crowded place on the Dhaka University Campus as they had been returning home from the traditional Ekushey Book Fair by rickshaw at around 8:30 pm.
The assailants dragged them from the rickshaw to the pavement and stabbed Roy in the head with sharp weapons. Bonya, surrounded by onlookers, was frantically fighting to save her husband. But, the assailants slashed her shoulders and fingers. Both were rushed to Dhaka Medical College Hospital, where Roy died at 10:30 pm. His wife survived the attack.
Avijit Roy, born to a Hindu family in Bangladesh had emigrated to the US. An engineer by profession, he set up his Bengali-language blog, Mukto Mona (Free thinker) to promote secular and humanist writing in Muslim-majority Bangladesh. He was also the author of numerous books and magazine and journal articles, and had received death threats from Islamist radicals for his writings. The extremist Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) claimed responsibility for his killing.
On March 30, 2015, blogger Oyasiqur Rhaman Babu , 27, was hacked to death in broad daylight on a busy street adjacent to his house in the Tejgaon area in Dhaka as he was leaving for work. The killing occurred just a month after Avijit Roy was killed in a similar attack. Bystanders chased two of the attackers armed with meat cleavers, but a third escaped. The captured killers said that they were Madrasa (Islamic school) students and were ordered to commit the crime. The attackers were members of the Ansarullah Bangla Team and had reportedly trained for fifteen days before killing the blogger. They also told police that they had targeted Babu because of his ‘anti-Islamic writing’. Babu had criticized irrational religious beliefs.
Ananta Bijoy Das
On May 12, 2015, Ananta Bijoy Das, 32, was killed while on his way to work in the city of Sylhet as part of the bloody pattern. A banker, he wrote blogs for the website Mukto Mona, mainly on science, and was also an activist for the Ganajagaron Mancha. He had been critical of religious fundamentalism and of previous attacks on secular thinkers. Das had been in a state of dread since the brutal murder of Avijit Roy, and frustrated with the lack of progress in the murder case, he had posted a status on Facebook on March 15: “If the killers are not tried, it is understood that they will hone another machete for another strike!” das used to write blogs for Mukto Mona advocating science and secularism. He had authored three books on science, evolution, and revolution in the Soviet Union, and headed the Sylhet-based science and rationalist council. He was also the editor of a quarterly little magazine Jukti (Logic).
Before his death, Ananta had got an invitation from Swedish PEN to speak about the threat to atheists in Bangladesh, but he was refused visa by the Swedish embassy in Dhaka, on grounds that he might seek to remain in Sweden.
Niladri Chattopadhyay ‘Niloy Neel’
On August 7, 2015, the year’s fourth chilling attack on free speech in the queue was executed when a group of six Islamist militants hacked to death Niladri Chattopadhyay Niloy, 28, a secular blogger, inside his house in the capital in broad daylight. The assailants with cleavers tricked into his house in Khilgaon posing as potential tenants and then killed him in his bedroom around 1:15pm. He was hacked over a dozen times in the neck, face, shoulder, chest and hands.
Niloy, who used to write online under the pen name ‘Niloy Neel’, had previously reported to the police that he feared for his life, but no action had been taken. He was an organizer of the Science and Rationalist Association Bangladesh. Niloy had written in Mukto Mona, was associated with the Shahbag Movement, and also attended the public protest demanding justice for the murdered bloggers, Ananta Bijoy Das and Avijit Roy. Ansarullah Al Islam Bangladesh, an Al Qaeda group, claimed responsibility for his killing.
On August 16, 2015, police arrested reputed journalist Probir Sikdar under Section 54 of the ICT Act. Doctors had earlier had amputated his leg, as assailants bombed him in 1994 for his reports on war criminals. He had been facing death threats for posting articles on some websites and Facebook exposing an alleged war criminal. Probir Sikdar went to file a General Diary (GD or complaint with the police) with Sher-e-Bangla Nagar Police Station on July 22. As the police did not register his GD, he posted his complaint on the Facebook seeking protection from the people. He also posted an article expressing his sense of insecurity and blamed two influential persons including a minister, who he said, would be responsible if he was murdered. Rather than assuring him of protection, police arrested him. He was set free after two days amidst criticism and protests across the country.
Faisal Arefin Dipan
October 31, 2015 was the deadliest day in Bangladesh for attacks on four publishers and bloggers in a row. Faisal Arefin Dipan, aged 43, the publisher of Jagriti Prakashani, which published Avijit Roy’s Biswasher Virus (Bengali for The Virus of Faith), succumbed to deadly wounds though three others survived.
In the first incident, three armed men posing as shoppers entered the offices of Shuddhaswar publishing house at 3 pm. Once inside, they started hacking Ahmedur Rashid Tutul, the publisher, and secular bloggers Ranadipam Basu and Tareq Rahim with machetes and cleavers indiscriminately and shot at Rahim from a firearm. They then padlocked the office from the outside and left the three in a pool of blood. The three men were taken to hospital in a critical condition. They survived.
The blood-stained body of Dipan was found in his publishing house in the evening, when the whole nation was already stunned seeing the horrific incidents through the media. Both of the publishers had published works of Bangladeshi-American blogger and writer Avijit Roy. The banned group Ansar al-Islam claimed responsibility.
On February 15, 2016, Shamsuzzoha Manik, the owner of Ba-Dwip publishing house, was arrested for the translation of an anthology Islam Bitarka (Controversies over Islam) which he had edited. Authorities at first closed down the publisher’s booth at Bangladesh’s national book fair and detained him along with two of his employees on the allegation of displaying the book that hurts religious sentiments. All copies of the book were confiscated from the premises and copies of five other books have been taken under scrutiny.
Manik is a blogger and writer. He is the founder moderator of a blog, Bangarastra.net, which used to propagate atheism and secularism and also envisioned a greater nation by consolidating the entire Bangla speaking population living in Bangladesh and West Bengal of India. A case has been lodged against him under the controversial Section 57 of the Information and Communications Technology Act, which criminalizes publishing of anything that can “hurt religious sentiments” of the people.
On April 6, 2016, Nazimudddin Samad, 28, was killed in Old Dhaka by suspected Islamist militants chanting “Allahu Akbar” as they shot and hacked him to death. Nazimuddin, a student of law at the Jagannath University, was attacked around 8:30 pm while walking home after classes with a companion. Three men reportedly intercepted them on a motorbike, hacked at Nazimuddin with a machete, then shot him while he lay on the ground. Nazimuddin, an activist of the Ganajagaron Mancha’s Sylhet wing, regularly posted atheist and feminist critiques of Islam on his Facebook page. He was also critical of the current government for not reining in the extremists in Bangladesh. Ansarullah Bangla Team has claimed responsibility for his killing.
- IFJ South Asia Media Bulletin, February 2023 02/15/2023 Download
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