The horrific murder in Cairo of Giulio Regeni, a 28-year-old Cambridge PhD student from Italy, met with worldwide condemnation. Many believe his murder was effectively an extrajudicial killing by the state’s security police because of his research on trade unions and political activism in Egypt. However, outside human rights circles, there has been less interest in the brutal killing of another student, this time in Bangladesh. On 6 April 2016, Nazimuddin Samad, also twenty-eight, a law student and blogger, was attacked with machetes at a busy intersection in Dhaka by three or more as yet unidentified assailants, who also shot him before fleeing the scene on a motorcycle.
Last year, I wrote in these pages (LR, June 2015) about the violent murder on 12 May of the blogger Ananta Bijoy Das. Das was hacked to death by religious extremists in the northeastern city of Sylhet. The murder of writers, journalists and outspoken students in Bangladesh, a majority Muslim country with a significant Hindu minority, continues with apparent impunity. Samad’s death marks the sixth killing of a writer or activist in the country since February 2015. PEN and other lobby groups are calling on the Bangladeshi authorities to do more to protect secular writers and intellectuals. Although the constitution in Bangladesh defines Islam as the state religion, it includes a clause undertaking to protect the ‘principle of secularism’.
The authorities have opened up an investigation into Samad’s murder and claim that his assailants had been monitoring him for some time. Ansar al-Islam, the Bangladesh division of al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, has since claimed responsibility for his murder.
Salil Tripathi, chair of International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, has criticised the authorities’ lack of effective action:
The impunity with which militants have targeted and killed bloggers, writers, and activists in the past two years shows that the government has failed to ensure a secure environment in which people can express their views freely and without fear. The lack of progress in investigations and the poor record of prosecution do not inspire confidence. Bloggers and writers have said that when they have lodged complaints with authorities, they are advised not to write on controversial matters. Such actions strengthen the killers and further undermine freedoms in Bangladesh. The government must take urgent steps to investigate and prosecute those responsible for unleashing this reign of terror.
Samad had recently moved to Dhaka from his home town of Sylhet to study for a master’s degree at Jagannath University. He had regularly written against religion on Facebook and was reportedly critical of radical Islamists. According to the Dhaka Tribune, Samad had expressed concerns over the country’s law and order situation in a Facebook post the day before his death. Police believe that he was targeted for his outspoken stance on religion and his involvement in the protest movement Gano Jagoron Mancha (roughly meaning ‘National Awakening Stage’), which has called for a clear delineation between religion and state.
Last year, five Bangladeshi writers and activists were killed by assailants suspected of being linked to Islamist organisations, and many others were attacked and threatened. All were targeted for writings critical of extremism and the country’s move away from secularism. On 26 February 2015, Avijit Roy, a prominent blogger, was hacked to death in Dhaka; his wife was injured in the attack. An Islamist has since been arrested for his murder. The following month, blogger Washiqur Rahman was killed. Two students from a madrassa have been arrested in connection with his killing. On 7 August, another blogger, Niloy Chakrabarti, was attacked and killed at his home in Dhaka by five or more assailants wielding machetes. Chakrabarti’s name had appeared alongside those of eighty-three other secular bloggers described as anti-Islamic and blasphemous.
On 31 October, Faisal Arefin Dipan, who published the book Biswasher Virus (‘The Virus of Faith’) by Roy, was hacked to death in his office in Dhaka after reportedly receiving death threats. Just hours earlier, three other bloggers and writers were attacked with guns and machetes in the office of the publishing house Shuddhashar Prokashani. Publisher and writer Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury (also known as Tutul) was critically injured. Tutul has published the work of Roy and Bijoy Das and has also written two poetry books, Durbalataguchchha and Mrita Ghorhar Hresha. He had received death threats and reported in the days leading up to the attack that he thought he was being followed. Two other writers, Sudeep Kumar Ray Barman (who uses the pen name Ranadipam Basu) and Tareq Rahim, were also injured.
The release of new ‘hit lists’ and the apparent impunity with which these crimes are committed has led to a growing climate of fear in Bangladesh. The state’s inability to respond to these attacks on freethinkers has forced many who challenge religious thought to go into hiding, while others seek refuge abroad.
Readers might like to send appeals condemning the shocking murder of Nazimuddin Samad; expressing concern about the escalating violence against writers and journalists in Bangladesh; seeking assurances that all assaults and threats against freethinkers, including bloggers and publishers, are being thoroughly investigated and that those found responsible will be brought to justice; and demanding that all necessary steps be taken to protect writers at risk in Bangladesh.
Appeals to be addressed to:
His Excellency Md Abdul Hannan
High Commission for Bangladesh
28 Queens Gate, London SW7 5JA
Fax: 020 7581 7477
President Md Abdul Hamid
Bangabhaban, Dhaka 1000, Bangladesh
Fax: +880 2 956 6242
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina
Old Sangsad Bhaban, Tejgaon, Dhaka 1215, Bangladesh