Bangladeshi activists protest the killing of secular blogger Niloy Neel in Dhaka on August 11, 2015. (AP/ A.M. Ahad)
Bangladeshi activists protest the killing of secular blogger Niloy Neel in Dhaka on August 11, 2015. (AP/ A.M. Ahad)

Hasina government must do more to protect Bangladesh’s bloggers

Asif Mohiuddin’s stab wounds are still visible two years on. In January 2013, the outspoken Bangladeshi blogger narrowly escaped death after he was attacked near his office by knife-wielding assailants. His attackers stabbed him nine times on his neck, head, and back, narrowly missing his spine.

Others have met with worse. This month, assailants hacked to death blogger Niloy Neel at his Dhaka apartment, marking the fourth murder of a blogger in Bangladesh in six months.

Today, authorities announced they apprehended three suspects, including one they claim is the mastermind, behind the earlier murders of bloggers Avijit Roy and Ananta Bijoy Das. Last week, police arrested two suspects in Neel’s murder.

But the slow pace at which authorities are responding–and in some cases turning a blind eye to threats–leads to the question of how many more bloggers will be killed before the government makes their safety a top priority. Critics say Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government has cowed to political pressure in a country where secularism appears to be on a speedy path to extinction.

All of the bloggers had criticized what they see as growing religious extremism in a country that is 90 percent Muslim but secular on paper. Another common denominator is their condemnation of accused war criminals–many of whom are Islamists–for crimes dating back to 1971, when Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan.

“It is now proven that Bangladesh is no longer a secular country. There is no place for free thinkers, for atheists, or for anyone who questions religion and authority,” 24-year-old blogger Ananya Azad told CPJ. There are those that are using “the mask of religion to create disharmony and turn Bangladesh into a Taliban state,” he said.

Hasina’s response to the killings has been muted, especially following the murder of American-Bangladeshi blogger Roy. In an interview earlier this year, Sajeeb Wazed, Hasina’s son and a consultant to the government, told Reuters, “We are walking a fine line here. We don’t want to be seen as atheists. It doesn’t change our core beliefs. We believe in secularism.” He added: “But given that our opposition party plays that religion card against us relentlessly, we can’t come out strongly for [Roy]. It’s about perception, not about reality.”

Bloggers say Hasina’s lack of toughness has harmed the country; she has emboldened Islamists to carry out further attacks. “Sheikh Hasina’s government is morally culpable. I am squarely blaming the state for these massacres in installment,” exiled blogger and writer Taslima Nasreen, who escaped Bangladesh in 1994 (and in May this year fled her host country India amid renewed threats),wrote on The Daily O, an Indian opinion and analysis news website, following Neel’s murder.

To be fair, Hasina issued a condemnation a day after Neel’s murder. “Those who kill people in the name of Islam have stigmatized the religion. We will never allow them to do so,” she said.

Her critics argue her words are too little, too late.

Not a single case has been brought to justice. It took over two years–and three more dead bloggers–before the trial began in the 2013 killing of Ahmed Rajib Haider, one of the first bloggers to be murdered, according to CPJ research. There has yet to be a conviction.

Roy’s family has said authorities have also been slow to act on his case. His widow, blogger Rafida Ahmed Bonya, who was also seriously injured in the attack, lashed out at the Hasina government in a Reuters interview in May, declaring that no one from the government had reached out to her, “It’s as if I don’t exist, and they are afraid of the extremists. Is Bangladesh going to be the next Pakistan or Afghanistan?”

While a few of Mohiuddin’s suspected attackers–he estimates there were 12 to 15 people involved–were arrested, others roam free, he said. There have been no convictions in the case almost three years on.

In Mohiuddin’s experience, authorities not only don’t provide a solution, but are part of the problem. A few months following his attack, he was arrested on the grounds that his writing “defamed” religion under the country’s Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act. His blog posts were subsequently deleted at the order of the telecommunications regulator.

It was during court visits in that case that Mohiuddin came face-to-face with Haider’s accused murderers outside the court. “We’ll take care of you when we are out,” he recalled them warning him. Posters vilifying Mohiuddin appeared around town soon after his release, he said. “I had to wear a mask,” he told CPJ over the phone from Germany, where he now lives.

Like Mohiuddin, Azad left the country after receiving online death threats warning him he would be next. Azad said that prior to fleeing Bangladesh in June, he would rarely leave his home, and when he did, he often wore a helmet to avoid being hacked at the head like the bloggers killed this year. “I had to ensure my security myself. I don’t trust the police,” he told CPJ by phone.

Azad said many police officers in Bangladesh are corrupt and some are fundamentalists. He is no stranger to threats. His father, the prominent writer Humayun Azad, survived an assassination attempt, then in 2004 during a visit to Germany, was found dead under mysterious circumstances. Azad recalls a childhood of bomb threats, kidnapping fears, and fatwas popping up in different corners of Bangladesh calling for his father’s death. A decade on, his distrust of police continues.

“Authorities seem more concerned with what bloggers are writing than going after their killers,” Azad said. “The main objective of the police should be to provide protection, but instead of doing their duties properly, police are criticizing bloggers.”

Following Neel’s murder, Inspector General of Police AKM Shahidul Hoque told bloggers not to “cross the limit” when writing about religion, according to news reports.

Weeks before his death, Neel posted his account of being followed by unknown men on his Facebook page. In it, he mentioned how police refused to log the threats he was facing. Instead, he said police advised him to flee the country, according to news accounts. Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan denied any complaint was filed, reports said.

Even fleeing the country is not a solution, Azad said. Bangladeshi writers and bloggers residing abroad have expressed feeling unsafe. As noted above, Nasreen left her home in India following threats, and other Bangladeshi-origin bloggers in Europe have also come under threat according to news reports. In Germany, for example, blogger Omar Farooq Lux told BDNews24, an independent news website, he had been alerted by German police about plans by U.K.-based Islamists to attack him.

“The fear of being next has driven many bloggers to stop writing, go into hiding, or flee the country,” Mohiuddin said. “There is a sense of panic among bloggers right now.” Atheism is anathema, so some bloggers have started to attend prayers at mosques and wear prayer caps in an effort to appear religious, said Mohiuddin, who remains in close touch with many in the country’s blogosphere.

Many bloggers are resorting to self-censorship. “They just don’t feel safe to write what they think anymore,” he said. “That shouldn’t be the situation. People should be free to write, to think.”

Azad put it more bluntly: “Give in to blind faith, shut your mouth, and break your pen if you wish to remain in the country.”