What’s behind the killings of bloggers, activists and professors in Bangladesh?

In Bangladesh, progressive voices have been swept up in a growing wave of unprecedented violence. A week ago, Bangladesh lost one of its foremost LGBT activists, the latest victim in a pattern of targeted killings that in April alone claimed four lives.

Xulhaz Mannan, editor of the LGBT magazine Roopbaan, died after men who posed as couriers with a delivery package entered his home and then hacked him and Tanay “Tonoy” Mojumdar to death. Since February 2013, at least 11 Bangladeshi activists, bloggers and professors who expressed opinions about religion, science, music or sexuality have been killed by attackers armed with machetes, meat cleavers and knives. In the latest incident, the Islamic State took credit for the killings.

Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the murder of Mannan, a former U.S. embassy employee, as “barbaric” and offered Bangladesh’s government support to investigate the killings.

In Bangladesh, this violence is unparalleled within the young nation’s history, said Brad Adams, executive director for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. He said if the Bangladeshi government doesn’t take action, freedom of speech and democracy in that country will suffer.

“If you work in academia, if you work in the media, if you work in the arts, you must feel like you could be targeted right now, and you have no sense of security,” Adams said.

Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch explains how a recent string of murders targeting bloggers and activists in Bangladesh chills freedom of expression across the country. Video by PBS NewsHour

After earlier fatal attacks, law enforcement in Bangladesh arrested suspects, but human rights advocates criticized police who suggested that self-censorship would prevent future killings. Following the August 2015 murder of atheist blogger Niloy Neel, the inspector general of police in Dhaka, Shahidul Hoque, encouraged bloggers and writers censor themselves, suggesting that the killings would then stop. Hoque still leads the police force in Bangladesh.

Later in November, the government banned social media apps, including Facebook, WhatsApp and more, citing security risks, the Columbia Journalism Review reported.

And in February, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina demanded that a newspaper editor resign. Reporters Without Borders, a group that advocates for press freedom, ranked Bangladesh 144th out of 180 countries worldwide and cautioned bloggers against criticizing the constitution or Islam.

Meanwhile, some Bangladeshis are taking care about what they say online and in public so they don’t fall suspect to future attacks.

People who can afford to leave Bangladesh have done so, said T. Kumar, Amnesty International’s international advocacy director.

Raihan Abir was one of them. He says his world is still shattered.

Abir became the editor of atheist blog, Mukto-Mona, or “Free Thought,” after men with machetes attacked and killed the blog’s founding editor, Avijit Roy, who Abir described as being “like an older brother.”

Abir then fled Bangladesh with his then-pregnant wife to Toronto as refugees. Recounting their journey and the continued suffering of his friends and family, Abir wept.

“If you believe in secularism, you’re going to get killed,” he said through tears. “No one is looking out for us. We’re getting hurt in every possible way.”

Timeline of attacks in Bangladesh

February 2013, Blogger: Ahmed Rajib Haider, a secularist blogger and Shahbagh protest organizer, was hacked to death and his body left in front of his house.

Reported by BBC at February 22, 2013

November 2014, Professor: Shafiul Islam, a university professor and humanist who wanted to ban full-face veil for women, was hacked to death.

Reported by Al Jazeera at November 17, 2014

February 2015, Blogger: Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi-American atheist blogger, died after he and his wife, Rafida Ahmed, were attacked when leaving a book fair in Dhaka. She survived.

Reported by The Telegraph at February 28, 2015

March 2015, Blogger: Washiqur Rahman, a secularist blogger, was attacked so brutally while walking to work in Dhaka, officials needed his voter registration card to identify his body.

Reported by CNN at March 31, 2015

May 2015, Blogger: Ananta Bijoy Das received death threats after he wrote for Roy’s website, Mukto-Mona, or “Free Thought.” His application for a Swedish visa was rejected, and he was later killed.

Reported by BBC at May 12, 2015

August 2015, Blogger: Niloy Neel was an atheist blogger who died after he was attacked at his home by men with machetes.

Reported by BBC at August 7, 2015

October 2015, Publisher: Faisal Arefin Dipan published secular books in Dhaka before men hacked him to death in his office.

Reported by BBC at October 31, 2015

April 2016, Blogger and law student: Nazimuddin Samad attended law school and shared his secularist opinions online. Then, while he sat in traffic, men with machetes attacked and then shot him.

Reported by BBC at April 7, 2016

April 2016, Professor: Rezaul Karim Siddique was an English professor who encouraged others to listen to music. Men killed him with machetes, and the Islamic State accused him of atheism.

Reported by BBC at April 24, 2016

April 2016, LGBT Activists: Xulhaz Mannan and Tanay “Tonoy” Mojumdar were LGBT activists who wrote for Bangladesh’s only LGBT magazine, Roopbaan. Men pretended to be couriers before they entered Mannan’s home, killing him and Mojumdar with machetes.

Reported by BBC at April 25, 2016