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.”