So far this year, five secularists have been hacked to death with machetes by hardline Islamists in Bangladesh. Four writers — Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman Babur, Ananta Bijoy Das, and Niloy Chakrabarti — have been murdered, and on 31 October, Faisal Arefin Dipan, who published Roy’s books, was killed at his office in Dhaka. Two secular bloggers and another publisher were badly injured in a similar attack just hours earlier.
This spate of attacks began in earnest in 2013, when atheist writer Asif Mohiuddin was attacked with machetes. While he survived, blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider, attacked a month later, wasn’t so fortunate. At the time, the attacks were linked to political tensions over the ongoing war crimes tribunal. Today, the brutal assaults on secularists seem to have taken on a life of their own and the government has failed to take any decisive action, meaning secularists have been marked out as an easy target. “We don’t want to be seen as atheists,” said the prime minister’s son, Sajeeb Wazed, in May.
In 2013, militant Islamists issued a hit list of 84 bloggers. Numerous other lists are in circulation. For those who are under threat, the situation is terrifying: amongst the small community of “freethinkers”, as they describe themselves, there is a sense that no one is safe. One blogger, who wrote on feminism and religion who wished to remain anonymous, arrived in Europe on 30 October, the day before Dipan was murdered. “I had direct threats to my life; I stopped blogging but the threats continued and I couldn’t even leave the house. Even now, I can’t believe that I’m safe,” she told me over the phone.
The feeling is shared among many atheist bloggers, who use pseudonyms out of fear of reprisals. Prithu Sanyal (not his real name) was a mid-level government employee in Bangladesh who blogged for years on different online forums for atheist writers. He comes from a Muslim family, but later became an atheist and is openly critical of fundamentalism and religious intolerance. This year, he had a frightening experience. “Some unknown people, who introduced themselves as members of ‘Allah’s Army’, stopped me on the way of returning home from the office, and threatened to kill me with my wife and sons,” he told me via email. “They told me that now it is my turn to be killed and also threatened to kill my wife for being my accomplice, and my sons for being brought up without a religious view.”
Sanyal did not go to the police. He feared outing himself and losing his job. Moreover, he had no reason to believe that the government would offer him protection.
These fears are well grounded. Mohiuddin, the first blogger attacked with machetes in 2013, was soon afterwards arrested under blasphemy laws, illustrating the double threat of extremist violence and official repression. He remained in Dhaka for some time, but conditions were difficult. He covered his face with a mask when he left the house, fearing vigilante attack or arrest. He now lives in Germany and told me that he still regularly receives death threats. “It’s very normal for me.”
Sanyal has also left Bangladesh but his family remains in the country. He asked Index on Censorship not to mention his destination as he still has safety concerns. Bangladeshi fundamentalists recently published an international hit list, including citizens of America and Europe. The clear implication is that nowhere is safe.
One blogger, Nastiker Dharmakatha, wrote a widely circulated document in July explaining the dire situation faced by those who remain in Bangladesh despite being on the hit list. “Since the killing of Ananta Bijoy Das, most of us have been keeping ourselves caged in four walls,” he wrote. “Being the main earning members of our families, we have to go to office regularly. Some of us can’t even avoid evening or night duty at work.”
The letter goes on to explain that the damage inflicted on bloggers isn’t just physical but also mental. With bedroom murders not uncommon, “even staying home fails to guarantee our safety”. Police officers can enter a home at any time to arrest bloggers for “provocative writings”.
After the most recent attacks on publishers, there have been protests in Bangladesh at the continued killings and perceived impunity for the killers. The home minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal did nothing to allay the sense that the government is not taking action, telling reporters: “The law-order situation is good. These sorts of stray incidents occur in all countries.”
Such sentiments offer little comfort to those facing a continued and serious threats to their life.
Secular bloggers in Bangladesh are fearing for their lives as four fellow bloggers were killed by machete-wielding extremists in the country earlier this year. Those murdered formed part of a hit list of 84 secularists and atheists targeted by Islamic fundamentalist groups for expressing their views online. The list was first circulated in 2013.
One of the bloggers, Bangladeshi-born US citizen Avijit Roy, set up the community blog Mukto-Mona. He was murdered with a machete in Dhaka in February. His wife was also wounded during the attack. Roy’s murder was followed by that of fellow secular bloggers Ananta Bijoy Das, Niloy Chatterjee and Washiqur Rahman. Threats to Chatterjee’s life were ignored by police.
Many writers in Bangladesh now fear they will suffer the same fate, with a number of them under 24-hour police protection. While five men, including one British citizen, have been arrested in connection with the murders, no charges have been made.
In response to the attacks, each member of Index on Censorship’s Youth Advisory Board has been asked to produce a short video urging Bangladesh’s government to do more to protect bloggers’ rights to free speech and prevent further killings.
One board member from the US, Muira McCammon, who is currently studying for a masters in translation studies, explains how the Bangladeshi government’s reluctance to protect bloggers is leading people to question online safety. Her compatriot states that the views of atheists are just as important as those with religious beliefs.
South African human rights advocate Simeon Gready, along with two friends from Justice and Peace Netherlands, wants to raise awareness of bloggers under threat in Bangladesh.
Index on Censorship deplores the killing of blogger Niloy Chakrabarti in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and calls on the authorities to investigate the murder and ensure that those responsible are found and brought to justice.
“We strongly condemn Niloy Chakrabarti’s brutal murder,” said Index’s senior advocacy officer Melody Patry. “We fear the death toll will increase if the authorities fail to take action to find and punish those responsible. Freedom of expression is in danger and Bangladesh must do more to protect writers online and offline.”
Chakrabarti, who wrote under the pen name Niloy Neel, is the fourth secular blogger to be murdered since the start of the year. A member of Bangladesh’s Science and Rationalist Association, he was attacked in his home in Dhaka.
In May, Ananta Bijoy Das was attacked and killed with machetes. On 30 March writer Washiqur Rahman, who was also known for his atheist views, was stabbed to death. In February, fellow atheist Avijit Roy was hacked to death by a knife-wielding mob in Dhaka as he walked back from a book fair.
Niloy Neel – Died 7 August 2015; killed in his flat in Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh. Neel was an anti-fundamentalist and anti-extremist blogger, and a known atheist who’d written pieces critical of religion. Other causes he wrote on were the rights of ethnic minorities and women. He was a regular contributor to Mukto-mona and Ishtishon. Currently, he was an activist of the Ganajagaran Mancha, the platform demanding capital punishment for the 1971 Islamic war criminals who’d recently been sentenced to life imprisonment in Bangladesh. He was murdered by an Islamic fundamentalist gang.
Ananta Bijoy Das – Died 12 May 2015 in Sylhet, Bangladesh. Das reportedly wrote for “Mukto-Mona” (“Free-mind”), and his pieces were often critical of religion. Islamist groups stated that his murder was a punishment for “crimes against Islam”. Das sought to be less controversial in his writing but death threats increased against him as more and more bloggers were being murdered. One of his last posts was critical of Bangladeshi police and how they did not protect secular writers. Also a Ganajagaran Manch activist.
Washiqur Rahman – Died 30 March 2015 in Dhaka. Rahman was targeted for his anti-Islamic writing, as told to police by the suspects taken into custody for the murder. Rahman frequently criticized what he saw as irrational fundamentalist groups; he was not an atheist by any means, but he held different religious views than his more extremist attackers. He was said to have written a 52-episode series for an anti-religion satirical site called Dhormockery.com which mocked aspects of Islam. He was also a Ganajagaran Manch activist.
Avijit Roy – Died 26 February 2015. Bangladeshi born US national. Roy founded the Mukto-Mona website, and his pieces often criticized religious intolerance. He was also a known advocate for freedom of speech in Bangladesh and would organize protests against international censorship and imprisonment of bloggers. Islamic militant organization Ansarullah Bangla Team claimed responsibility for the attack. He also was involved with the Ganajagaran Manch.
Index on Censorship condemns the brutal murder of Bangladeshi blogger Ananta Bijoy Das — the third such attack since February. AFP reported that attackers wearing masks hacked atheist blogger Das to death with machetes. The murder follows that of fellow atheist Avijit Roy, a blogger who advocated secularism, and who was hacked to death by a knife-wielding mob in Dhaka as he walked back from a book fair in February. Weeks later atheist writer Washiqur Rahman was stabbed to death in the capital.
Index CEO Jodie Ginsberg said: “Our sympathies are with the family of Ananta Bijoy Das. Like Avijit Roy and Washiqur Rahman, he was targeted simply for expressing his own beliefs. We are appalled by these deaths and call on Bangladesh and the international community to do more to protect such writers.”