Public death threats issued on social media, and carried out soon after. That is the chilling reality of bloggers in Bangladesh who are speaking out against religious extremism. In February, US blogger Avijit Roy was murdered with a machete on a busy road in Dhaka.
A month later, it was the turn of 27-year-old Washiqur Rahman to be hacked to death.
In an interview on Skype, Imran H Sarker, head of the Blogger and Online Activists Network in Bangladesh and a spokesperson for the Shahbag Movement of 2013 talks to Indulekha Aravind about why bloggers are targets of deadly attacks, the fight against fundamentalism and the government's failure to bring the perpetrators to justice. Edited excerpts:
Why are bloggers being targeted so viciously?
They are being targeted because they are individuals. They never negotiate with anybody, or succumb to pressure unlike political parties or activists belonging to an organisation. And two, they cannot be controlled by radical religious groups, unlike political parties.
After 1947, Islamic groups like Jamaat-e-Islami have tried to dominate this region. Jamaat-e-Islami is an organised terrorist group, wearing a mask of democracy. They believe in an Islamic revolution, and are preparing for that. It is also very strong financially and so they can manage any political party, even the secular ones. In 2013, when the Shahbag movement happened, Jamaat was faced with an existential crisis because young people had united agains the role of religion in politics.
We called for a ban on Jamaat-e-Islami, demanded a war crimes trial and called for a boycott of the financial organisations controlled by Jamaat-e-Islami, which includes the largest bank in Bangladesh. But at the same time, the ruling party, the Awami League, encouraged opening branches of the same bank. This just showed that Jamaat could control everyone, apart from the youth, and bloggers. So they started killing them.
Washiqur Rahman was posting anonymously. How did they identify and kill him?
Good question. Even Ahmed Rajib Haider, who was killed in 2013, was writing anonymously. They have organised cells to identify and analyse those who are against radical Islamic groups and promote secularism. They identified them and began killing them one by one.
Is it true that the people caught had never read the blogs?
Absolutely. They don't even know what a blog is. But their terrorist mentor had ordered them to kill, so they did.
Several bloggers are also reported to have died under mysterious circumstances recently, according to reports...
Yes, it's not just the three bloggers we talked about. Others faced different kinds of attacks, including Shahbag activists -- deaths designed to look like road accidents or robbery. But how is it that it is only bloggers and activists who seem to be dying like this.
Have you received threats?
If you read some of the comments on my Facebook page or on my Twitter feed, you would be terrified. When the Shahbag movement began in February 2013, I used to get thousands of threats every single day. The threats were blatant, along the lines of “I will kill you tomorrow”. When we were protesting against the murders of bloggers, they would say things such as “Avijit Roy was killed. You are next” or “Washiqur Rahman was killed, you’ll be the next victim”.
Has the government promised security?
In the case of Avijit Roy, who was living in the US, threats were issued to him openly, with radicals saying they would kill him if he came to Bangladesh. The next time he came, he was killed. These extremists are going about the murders in a very organised manner, but the government has taken no action. If these radicals complain that what bloggers are writing is against Islam, the bloggers are arrested.
For instance, in 2013, when a fanatic group raised their voice against four secular, progressive bloggers, they were immediately arrested. But till now, no one from the extremist groups issuing death threats have been arrested, though it is being done openly. So we know the government is not going to do anything. Even the political parties talking about a secular Bangladesh negotiate with fanatics for votes. And no one from the government has come forward to express solidarity with the victims, even though it is supposed to be a secular government.
Have you tried approaching the police?
Avijit Roy was killed in a public place, where there were a lot of policemen. His wife, who was with him, cried out to the police for help but they did nothing. They did not even care to take him to the hospital. So yes, you can file a complaint, but they will laugh at you. Nothing will come out of it.
How is the blogger community reacting?
We are determined to fight back. We have been fighting since 2013, especially those of us involved in the Shahbag movement. Some of those not involved, the common man, might be afraid. But the young people of this generation, especially students, are determined to free the nation from Islamist evils.
Has the response of the international community been adequate?
We are fighting a global terrorist group. Their names might be different but they are the same people destroying Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria. They are patronised and funded by the same group of people. And those who believe in a liberal, secular state should fight them together. To fight them just locally is difficult.
What is the way forward, for all of you?
It's difficult because we are still fighting against these evils. But the government is not listening to us. A month has passed since Roy's murdered but there has been no progress in the investigation. The man who was arrested was someone who issued a threat on Facebook but no evidence has been found of his involvement in the murder.
Bangladesh becoming one of the most dangerous places to be a blogger?
It’s becoming a dangerous place for freedom of speech and for freedom of expression. We didn’t expect this because Bangladesh has a history of fighting radical groups. We have a secular constitution that guarantees the same right to freedom of speech to everyone, irrespective of religion, caste and colour. But with the lack of political commitment today, we are being killed, one by one. It’s as if we are fighting the same evil forces we fought against in 1971.