By: Nava Thakuria

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.