The flight of the Bangladesh writer and human rights activist Taslima Nasreen in the face of murder threats by Al Qaeda radicals is the latest indication of a disintegrating civil society in the poverty-stricken, faction-ridden country. Since 2013 five bloggers have been attacked by militants, four of them murdered in gruesome fashion by machete-wielding assailants and the fifth seriously injured.
It was announced on June 4 in the United States that Nasreen arrived in the US sometime last week from India after she was "specifically named as an imminent target" by the extremists. The 52-year-old Nasreen, a physician and internationally acclaimed poet and novelist, has lived in exile for the past 12 years, afraid to return to her home country and now to her adopted home in West Bengal in India.
Bangladesh remains in the international media spotlight, most of the time for the wrong reasons. An intolerant government has pushed through increasingly restrictive laws and given the judiciary the power to enforce rigid interpretations of contempt of court and has seemingly turned a blind eye to the murders. The Awami League government led by Sheikh Hasina Wazed has imprisoned more than 10,000 opposition activists. Dozens have allegedly been killed by law enforcement agencies or died in their custody in what are alleged to be extra-judicial killings.
But it is not the government but fundamentalist Islamists closely identified with Al Qaeda that are credited with the attacks on the bloggers and who reportedly have compiled hit lists of atheist bloggers. Both Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists have condemned the killings and demanded that the government protect bloggers, which it doesn’t seem inclined to do.
“We fear the possibility of more attacks of this kind,” Reporters Without Borders Program Director Lucie Morillon said. “What are the authorities waiting for to find and punish those responsible? Freedom of information and thought seems exposed to a growing danger. It is vital to protect Bangladesh’s free-thinkers and not yield to impunity.”
Human Rights Watch pointed out that “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.”
Bangladesh is ranked 146th of 180 countries for press freedom in 2015 by Reporters Without Borders.
The killings have triggered huge public protests in Bangladesh, with rallies organized by progressives, mostly internet-savvy youths. Sizable media space has also been dedicated for the cause of concerns that the bloggers have raised.
UN agencies, the US government, rights bodies and media forums have condemned the killings. The UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova, in a statement from Paris, voiced grave concern about the safety of citizen journalists in Bangladesh. She also called on authorities to ensure that those responsible for the killings were brought to justice
The latest round of killings included Ananta Bijoy Das, 33, a banker by profession, who was set upon by four machete-wielding assailants as he was on his way to his office in the city of Sylhet in the northeast of the country. Although he attempted to run for his life, he was slashed in full public view and died later in hospital.
Das had previously edited a Bengali periodical titled Jukti (Logic). He also wrote for a blog developed and moderated by the late atheist blogger Dr Avijit Roy, who had made the mistake of returning from his base in the United States and was murdered on Feb. 26 by religious fanatics wielding machetes. Roy’s wife, Rafida Bonya Ahmed, who was with him at the time of the attack, was seriously injured.
Another secular activist-writer, Washiqur Rahman Babu, 27, was murdered on March 30 in the national capital of Dhaka. The only visible reason for all of the murders was that all of the bloggers were free-thinkers and raised questions against all religions including Islam.
Roy was arguably the most prominent. Born to a Hindu family in 1972, he completed his education in Bangladesh and later migrated to America. An engineer by profession, Roy was a popular science writer who started Mukto-Mona [Free Thinker] to propagate rationalism and promote secular writings.
Founded in 2001, Mukto-Mona, which has continued beyond Roy’s death, gives space to analytical articles, essays, reviews and debates on relevant issues. With a mission “to promote science, rationalism, secularism, freethinking, human rights, religious tolerance and harmony amongst all people in the globe,” Mukto-Mona succeeded in drawing the attention of like-minded thinkers including many distinguished authors, scientists, philosophers and human rights activists from around the world. It also drew the attention of the murders.
“We are against all kinds of social injustices, religious and oppressive dogmas, doctrines, and discriminations,” according to the blog’s mission statement. “We critique everything that hinders people’s access to civil liberty, freedom, democracy and secularism. We take a strong stand against all kinds of human rights violations such as oppression of ethnic/religious minority community and gender-based discriminations against women, homosexuals and others.”
On the other hand, the murdered Washiqur Rahman used to write about science and religion. Blogging under the pen-name “Kutsit Haser Chana” [“Ugly Duckling”], Rahman often criticized what he described as irrational religious beliefs and practices including those of Islam. He also advocated for reforms in various Islamic laws across the globe.
Bangladesh reported the first killing of a blogger in 2013, when Ahmed Rajib Haider, an architect by profession, was murdered at the peak of a movement demanding stringent punishments to war criminals still left over from the war of independence. Another blogger, Asif Mohiuddin, was targeted by suspected Islamist activists in March 2013, but he escaped with serious injuries. Mohiuddin had also raised various questions about different aspects of Islam on the internet and invited enmity from religious fanatics.
Despite the grave situation, Sheikh Hasina has issued no condemnations of the killings and has avoided expressing any official sympathy to the victim families. The government has also maintained silence on reports that a Bangladeshi version of Al Qaeda was responsible for the assassinations of the bloggers while terming the victims as blasphemers.
“You can do very little when your elected government doesn't give you any support, especially when these kind of brutal murders are happening. The [Bangladesh] government has stayed completely quiet about this,” Ajit Roy’s widow Rafida Bonya Ahmed, who is presently undergoing treatment in US, told Asia Sentinel.
She added that the Prime Minister had called her father-in-law privately and “tried their best to keep it a secret so that nobody knows that they have sympathized with us at all.”
On the contrary the Hasina government has arrested bloggers “for criticizing religion to make religious groups happy because that's what they demanded,” she said. “But when the bloggers are killed brutally by these religious fundamentalists, the government stays quiet.”