The brutal murder of another journalist and blogger in Bangladesh has been met with worldwide condemnation and renewed calls for the country’s secular government to protect free speech. On 12 May, 33-year-old Ananta Bijoy Das was hacked to death by religious extremists in the northeastern city of Sylhet. He is the third blogger to be murdered for writings on secular matters this year alone. Writers and journalists in Bangladesh who do no more than peacefully express their views are increasingly being targeted. At least six writers have been attacked or murdered since 2013 and, though there have been several arrests, no one has been brought to justice for any of these attacks. Article 19’s most recent report records 213 attacks in 2014 against journalists, bloggers and online writers.
Das was attacked at approximately 8.30am in a busy street by a masked gang wielding machetes. They chased him as he made his way to the bank where he worked. Prior to his murder, Das had received a number of death threats. His name appeared in two assassination lists compiled by the extremist Islamist group Ansarullah Bangla Team (also known as Ansar Bangla-7 and Ansar al Islam Bangladesh) in 2013 and 2015, which were published in the Bangladeshi media. The lists included many other secular bloggers described by the group as anti-Islamic and blasphemous. In an email to Swedish PEN on 20 March 2015, Das wrote:
Just after the list was published I am getting calls at my cell phone and home number from some anonymous people who are threatening to murder me and my family members. I nowadays stay underground away from my home. It is barely called living. I don’t want to get killed at home or on the street, most importantly I don’t want to endanger the lives of my family members. I need to live, for a lot of things are yet to be done.
Das had been accepted for a placement by the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) and in early April 2015 was invited by Swedish PEN to visit Sweden and speak about the deteriorating situation in Bangladesh for journalists and writers. On 22 April, despite the death threats against him and the offer of safe haven by ICORN, the Swedish embassy in Dhaka refused Das’s visa application, stating: ‘You belong to a category of applicants where there is always a risk involved when granting a visa that you will not leave [the] Schengen area after the visit. Furthermore, the purpose of your trip is not urgent enough to grant you a visa.’
As well as being an editor for a quarterly science magazine called Jukti (‘Logic’), Das founded and ran the Sylhet-based Science and Rationalist Council. He wrote for a blog, Mukto-Mona (‘Free Mind’), and was awarded the Mukto-Mona Rationalist Award in 2006 for ‘his deep and courageous interest in spreading secular and humanist ideals and messages in a place which is not only remote, but doesn’t have even a handful of rationalists’. His work focused on atheism and science, with a particular emphasis on biological evolution. He also wrote blog posts that criticised aspects of Islam and Hinduism, as well as a poem eulogising the renowned Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, who fled to Europe in 1994 after receiving death threats from Islamic fundamentalists and being charged with blasphemy.
Ansarullah Bangla Team is believed to be responsible for various attacks on secularist writers between 2013 and 2015, including the murders this year of two other distinguished bloggers, Washiqur Rahman Babu and Avijit Roy, a close friend of Das.
According to his family, Roy, who had American citizenship, had received numerous threats from religious extremists in connection with his writings before he was assassinated. Roy founded Mukto-Mona to oppose fundamentalism and had written various books, including Biswasher Virus (‘Virus of Faith’). On 26 February he was ambushed by two unknown assailants outside Dhaka University as he and his wife were returning from a book fair. According to eyewitnesses, they were dragged from a bicycle rickshaw before being attacked with machetes. His wife was critically injured. Police launched an investigation and recovered the machetes used in the attack, but have failed to confirm the identity of the perpetrators.
A month later, Babu was killed by three assailants with knives some 500 yards from his home in Begunbari in Dhaka. He was active on social media and blogged on a number of websites and forums, including Sachalayatan, a popular forum, about religious fundamentalism.
According to Article 19, the delays in investigating these crimes and the absence of convictions in the case of the three bloggers has contributed to the rising culture of impunity in Bangladesh. Inevitably, free expression is being stifled and writers and journalists are beginning to self-censor. Readers might like to send appeals condemning the shocking murder of writer, editor and blogger Ananta Bijoy Das and expressing concern about the escalating violence against writers and journalists in Bangladesh; seeking assurances that all assaults and threats against writers and journalists are thoroughly investigated and that those found responsible are brought to justice; and demanding that all necessary steps are taken to protect writers at risk in Bangladesh.
Appeals to be addressed to:
His Excellency Mohamed Abdul Hannan
High Commission for Bangladesh
28 Queens Gate, London SW7 5JA
Fax: 020 7581 7477
President Abdul Hamid
Bangabhaban, Dhaka 1000, Bangladesh
Fax: +880 2 956 6242
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina
Old Sangsad Bhaban, Tejgaon, Dhaka-1215, Bangladesh