Since 2013, a number of secularist writers, bloggers and publishers in Bangladesh have been killed or seriously injured in attacks perpetrated by Islamist extremists. The attacks have taken place at a time of growing tension between Bangladeshi secularists, who want the country to maintain its secularist tradition of separation of religion and state, and Islamists, who want an Islamic state. Tensions have also risen as a result of the country’s war crimes tribunal, which has recently convicted several members of the opposition Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party for crimes committed during Bangladesh’s bloody war of independence in 1971. Secularists have been calling for harsher penalties for the convicted, with some calling for the Jamaat-e-Islam party itself to be outlawed, drawing the ire of the party’s supporters. Responsibility for the attacks on secularists which have since occurred have been claimed by a number of militant groups including Ansarullah Bangla Team, who have frequently justified their attacks on the grounds that their victims are “atheists” and enemies of Islam. Four bloggers had been killed in 2015, but only 4 people were arrested in the murder cases.
On 15 January 2013, Asif Mohiuddin, a self-described “militant atheist” blogger, was stabbed near his office in Dhaka. He survived the attack. Mohiuddin, a winner of the BOBs award for online activism, was on an Islamist hit list that also included the sociology professor Shafiul Islam. The Islamist fundamentalist group Ansarullah Bangla Team claimed responsibility for the attack. According to Mohiuddin, he later met his attackers in jail, and they told him, “You left Islam, you are not a Muslim, you criticized the Koran, we had to do this.” Reporters Without Borders stated that Mohiuddin and others have “clearly” been targeted for their “opposition to religious extremism.”
Ahmed Rajib Haider
On the night of 15 February 2013, Ahmed Rajib Haider, an atheist blogger, was attacked while leaving his house in the Mirpur area of Dhaka. His body was found lying in a pool of blood, mutilated to the point that his friends could not recognise him. The following day, his coffin was carried through Shahbagh Square in a public protest attended by more than 100,000 people.
Haider was an organizer of the Shahbag movement, a group “which seeks death for war criminals and a ban on Jamaat-e-Islami and its student front Islami Chhatra Shibir.” According to Haider‘s family, Haider was murdered “for the blogs he used to write to bring ‘war criminals’ to justice” and for his outspoken criticism of the Jamaat-e-Islami party. The Shahbag movement described Haider as their “first martyr”.
On the night of 7 March 2013, Sunnyur Rahaman was injured when two men swooped on him and hacked him with machetes. He came under attack around 9:00 pm near Purabi Cinema Hall in Mirpur. With the assistance of local police he was rushed to Dhaka Medical College and Hospital with wounds in his head, neck, right leg and left hand. Rahaman was a Shahbag movement activist and a critic of various religious parties including Jamaat-e-Islami.
On 15 November 2014 a teacher of Rajshahi University sociology department named Shafiul Islam, a follower of the Baul community, was struck with sharp weapons by several youths on his way home. He died after being taken to Rajshahi Medical College and Hospital. A fundamentalist Islamist militant group named ‘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 a newspaper affiliated with 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.”
According to one of Shafiul Islam‘s colleagues, the victim was not anti-Islam, but had prohibited female students from wearing full-face veils in his classes as he believed they could be used to cheat in exams.
On 26 February 2015, bio-engineer Dr. Avijit Roy, a well-known Bangladeshi blogger, and his wife Bonya Ahmed were attacked in Dhaka by machete-wielding assailants. Roy and his wife had been returning home from the Ekushey Book Fair by bicycle rickshaw when around 8:30 pm they were attacked near the Teacher Student Center intersection of Dhaka University by unidentified assailants. According to witnesses, two assailants stopped and dragged them from the rickshaw to the pavement before striking them with machetes. Roy was struck and stabbed in the head with sharp weapons. His wife was slashed on her shoulders and the fingers of her left hand severed when she attempted to go to her husband‘s aid. Both were rushed to Dhaka Medical College Hospital, where Roy died at 10:30 pm. His wife survived the attack.
Roy was a naturalized U.S. citizen and founder of the influential Bangladeshi blog Mukto-Mona (“Freethinkers”). A champion of liberal secularism and humanism, Roy was an outspoken atheist and opponent of religious extremism. He was the author of ten books, the best known of which was a critique of religious extremism, Virus of Faith. A group calling itself Ansar Bangla 7 claimed responsibility for the attack, describing Roy‘s writings as a “crime against Islam”. They also stated that he was targeted as a U.S. citizen in retaliation for U.S. bombing of ISIS militants in Syria.
Roy‘s killing sparked protests in Dhaka, and expressions of concern internationally. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice, and for the government to defend freedom of expression and public debate. Author Tahmima Anam wrote in The New York Times “Blogging has become a dangerous profession in Bangladesh” stating that writers have rallied at Dhaka University to criticise the authorities for “not doing enough to safeguard freedom of expression.” Anam wrote
[Avijit Roy] and Mr. Rahman were the victims of murderous thugs, but they were also the victims of a poisonous political climate, in which secularists and Islamists, observant Muslims and atheists, Jamaat-e-Islami and the Awami League are pitted against one another. They battle for votes, for power, for the ideological upper hand. There seems to be no common ground.
Mahfuz Anam, editor of The Daily Star wrote that the death “is a spine-chilling warning to us all that we all can be targets. All that needs to happen for any of us to be killed is that some fanatic somewhere in the country, decides that someone or anyone, needs to be killed.” Anam stated
We believe that diversity, tolerance and freedom of conscience – fundamental to our existence – are being challenged here… What is being destroyed is an integral part of the values of our freedom struggle and the democratic struggle that we have waged so far.
On 30 March 2015, another blogger, Oyasiqur Rhaman, was killed in Dhaka in a similar attack to that perpetrated on Avijit Roy. The police arrested two suspects near the scene and recovered meat cleavers from them. The suspects said they killed Rhaman due to his anti-Islamic articles. Rhaman was reportedly known for criticizing “irrational religious beliefs”. The suspects informed the police that they are also members of the Ansarullah Bangla Team and had trained for fifteen days before killing the blogger.
Imran Sarker told reporters that unlike Roy, Oyasiqur Rhaman was not a high-profile blogger, but “was targeted because open-minded and progressive bloggers are being targeted in general. They are killing those who are easy to access, when they get the opportunity… The main attempt is to create fear among bloggers.” According to Sarker, Rhaman‘s murder was part of a “struggle between those who are promoting political Islam to turn Bangladesh into a fundamentalist, religious state and the secular political forces … That is why [the bloggers] have become the main target, and the political parties who are supposed to prevent such attacks and provide security to them seem unable to do so. The main problem is that even mainstream political parties prefer to compromise with these radical groups to remain in power”.
The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a press release stating that Rhaman’s death occurred in a climate of “official harassment of journalists in Bangladesh”.
Ananta Bijoy Das
Ananta Bijoy Das, an atheist blogger who was on an extremist hit-list for his writing, was hacked to death by four masked men in Sylhet on 12 May 2015. Ananta wrote blogs for Mukto-Mona. 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 an editor of a quarterly magazine called Jukti (Logic).
Ananta Das was invited by Swedish PEN to discuss the persecution of writers in Bangladesh, but the Swedish government refused him a visa on the basis that he might not return to Bangladesh after his visit.
Lawyer Sara Hossain said of Roy and Das, “They’ve always believed and written very vocally in support of free expression and they’ve very explicitly written about not following any religion themselves.” Asia director of Human Rights Watch Brad Adams said on Ananta’s killing, “This pattern of vicious attacks on secular and atheist writers not only silences the victims but also sends a chilling message to all in Bangladesh who espouse independent views on religious issues.”
An editorial in The Guardian stated “Like Raif Badawi, imprisoned and flogged in Saudi Arabia, the brave men who have been murdered are guilty of nothing more than honesty and integrity. Those are virtues that fundamentalists and fanatics cannot stand.” It concludes “Violent jihadis have circulated a list with more than 80 names of free thinkers whom they wish to kill. The public murder of awkward intellectuals is one definition of barbarism. Governments of the west, and that of Bangladesh, must do much more to defend freedom and to protect lives.”
Niladri Chattopadhyay Niloy, also known as Niloy Chatterjee and by his pen name Niloy Neel, was killed on 7 August 2015. It is reported that, a gang of about six men armed with machetes attacked him at his home in the Goran area of Dhaka and hacked to death. Police said that the men had tricked his wife into allowing them into his home before killing him. Neel had previously reported to the police that he feared for his life, but no action had been taken. He was an organiser of the Science and Rationalist Association Bangladesh, and had gained a master’s degree in Philosophy from Dhaka University in 2013. Niloy had written in Mukto-Mona, a blogging platform for secularists and freethinkers, 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 the killing of the blogger.
The UN urged a quick and fair investigation of the murder, saying, “It is vital to ensure the identification of those responsible for this and the previous horrendous crimes, as well as those who may have masterminded the attacks.” Amnesty International condemned the killing and said that it was the “urgent duty (of the government) to make clear that no more attacks like this will be tolerated”. Other entities which condemned the killing, include the German Government, Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina, Human Rights Watch, Communist Party of Bangladesh, Gonojagoron Moncho and other rightist and leftist political parties of Bangladesh.
Writer Taslima Nasrin criticized the prime minister Sheikh Hasina and her Government saying, “Sheikh Hasina’s government is morally culpable. I am squarely blaming the state for these massacres in installment. Its indifference and so-called inability to rein in the murderous Ansarullah brigade is solely predicated on the fear of being labelled atheists.”
Faisal Arefin Dipan
Faisal Arefin Dipan, aged 43, the publisher of Jagriti Prakashani, which published Avijit Roy’s Biswasher Virus (Bengali for The Virus of Faith), was hacked to death in Dhaka on 31 October 2015. Reports stated that he had been killed in his third-floor office at the Jagriti Prokashoni publishing house. The attack followed another stabbing, earlier the same day, when publisher Ahmedur Rashid Tutul and two writers, Ranadeep Basu and Tareque Rahim, were stabbed in their office at another publishing house. The three men were taken to hospital, and at least one was reported to be in a critical condition.
n had a role in this death.