Fears stalk Bangladesh bloggers after killing spree

Published September 4, 2015
Bangladeshi blogger Shammi Haque poses for a photograph in Dhaka on September 3, 2015. —AFP
Bangladeshi blogger Shammi Haque poses for a photograph in Dhaka on September 3, 2015. —AFP

DHAKA: Nervous, pale and sleep deprived, Bangladesh blogger Shammi Haque describes living in constant fear after four of her colleagues were hacked to death this year by suspected Islamists.

A social activist, feminist and atheist writer, Haque rarely ventures outside her home in the capital and receives 24-hour police protection, fearful of being next on the list of machete-wielding attackers.

“I cannot close my eyes without having sleeping pills. Even the noise of the window shutters scares me,” the 22-year-old university student told AFP recently in Dhaka.

Bangladesh's bloggers and secular activists have been in hiding or fled the country since the murders —including that of Niloy Chakrabarti, a vocal critic of Islamic fundamentalism, in his home in August.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's secular government has vowed to hunt down the killers, following international outrage and accusations it failed to stop the attacks, wary of a political backlash from Islamists.

Police have stepped up security for those being threatened and thought to be on the hit-list drawn up by a hardline Islamist group.

A string of arrests have been made, and police this week charged five militants of banned Islamist militant outfit Ansarullah Bangla Team over the murder of Washiqur Rahman, the first blogger killed in January.

But bloggers including Shammi are unconvinced by the belated efforts and question the government's sincerity.

“At least 12 atheist bloggers have fled the country this year. And 70 bloggers have asked for assistance for migration as their lives are at stake,” said Berlin-based atheist blogger Asif Mohiuddin.

Mohiuddin left Bangladesh after surviving a machete attack in 2013. Police have accused several of Mohiuddin's attackers, who were released on bail, of later murdering Chakrabarti.

“I am not sure whether the government is sincere in protecting the bloggers. If that was the case, these murderers could have never got bail and continued their killing spree,” said Mohiuddin.

Moderate Muslim nation

Islamists have long clashed with young secular activists whom they consider infidels for criticising Islam on social media, some of them under pen names.

But the gruesome killings have shaken many in Bangladesh which prides itself on being a mainly moderate Muslim country.

The impoverished and officially secular nation of 160 million has largely rejected Islamic extremism since gaining independence from Pakistan in 1971.

At a restaurant in Dhaka, Haque tells of death threats made by anonymous callers to her mobile and also on social media, as well as being followed by strangers.

As a police officer hovers nearby, Haque, known for her feminist and atheist posts on blogs and Facebook, says she swings between wanting to leave and a desire to stay and write.

“Many of my friends including fellow activists and bloggers had to leave the country after receiving such threats,” she says, jumping as a waiter drops a fork on the floor nearby.

“But I want to stay and continue writing, although I know I need to be alive first.”

Death threats

One of the bloggers, Bangladeshi-born US citizen Avijit Roy, was hacked to death on a crowded street in Dhaka in February.

Although encouraged by recent arrests, bloggers accuse the government of sitting on its hands over the killings. They say the government is wary of losing votes in the deeply conservative rural heartland where Islamist leaders hold great sway.

The government has cracked down on Islamist activists in recent years after large-scale, violent protests against conviction of their leaders for war crimes dating back to the 1971 independence conflict.

But secular supporters were outraged last month when the nation's police chief warned bloggers they could also face jail for hurting religious sentiments through their writing, saying “no one should cross the limit”.

Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan has publicly condemned the killings. But he also backed his police chief's comments, deepening blogger fears of a lack of government support.

“All the slain bloggers had received death threats by militants and the process was repeated time and again. It proves negligence by the administration,” leading online secular activist Imran H Sarker told AFP.

Journalist Nazrul Biswas is one of at least six bloggers to have received death threats in the last month.

“We cannot move comfortably. Our families are panicked. Three of us have switched off our mobile phones and are confined at home,” Biswas told AFP.

Police said they were doing their best to provide security to those being threatened. “We are working on it very seriously,” police spokesman Muntashirul Islam told AFP.

Haque remains doubtful, however, saying the killers seem to plan their attacks carefully to avoid detection.

“You know how they work. They follow you for months and eventually make the ultimate hit.”

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