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Bangladesh Blogger Killings Highlight Dangers of Speaking Out

Suspected Muslim militants Saad-al-Nahin, right, and Masud Rana, who were arrested in the last week's killing of a secular blogger, stand before the media in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Friday, Aug. 14, 2015.
Suspected Muslim militants Saad-al-Nahin, right, and Masud Rana, who were arrested in the last week's killing of a secular blogger, stand before the media in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Friday, Aug. 14, 2015.

Police in Bangladesh have announced the arrest of two suspects in last week’s killing of an outspoken secular blogger, the fourth such attack this year.

A police official said authorities are not certain whether the two young men were directly linked to the killing of Niladri Chatterjee, but believe they may have information about the four men suspected of hacking the blogger to death at his home last Friday. The two suspects, Saad al Nahin and Masud Rana, are believed to be members of the banned Islamist extremist group Ansarullah Bangla Team.

The arrests have done little to satisfy critics who have complained that the slow pace of investigations and statements by senior police officials may be spurring more attacks.

“Many are asking if any section of the law enforcing agencies or the government is somehow helping the criminals who are killing the bloggers. Now, the government has to arrest the culprits to prove that it does not support the killers,” Imran H. Sarker, who leads the Blogger and Online Activist Network in Bangladesh, said to VOA.

Bangladesh’s top police official rejected accusations that officers sympathize with the attackers or are intentionally slowing down their investigations.

“We condemn all these killings. We pledge to trace out the killers and bring them to justice. The investigations in all cases are going on well,” inspector general of police A. K. M. Shahidul Hoque said in a news conference earlier this week.

Islamists: Execute bloggers

Almost a decade ago, a small community of mostly atheist Bangladeshi online writers began presenting their arguments against Islamic and other religious beliefs online. Identified as “atheist bloggers,” they also questioned conventional political ideas in their writing.

Although the bloggers became popular among secular Bangladeshis, their writing angered the large community of Islamists.

In 2013, Hefajat-e-Islam (HeI), a body of some Islamist groups, drew up a list of 84 atheist bloggers and presented it to the government demanding their arrest and trial under blasphemy laws for their alleged defamatory writing against Islam.

Within weeks as the Islamist body also launched mass protests calling for execution of the online atheists, the bloggers began facing hate attacks.

After blogger Rajeeb Haider was hacked to death in February 2013, most of the bloggers went into hiding, fearing for their lives.

In Bangladesh, in the past two and a half years, five atheist bloggers and five secular activists who supported them have been killed in near-identical machete attacks after being identified and tracked by the killers.

After Bangladeshi-American blogger and writer Avijit Roy, who founded the popular atheist blog “Mukto-Mona” (Free Mind in Bengali), was killed in February, a group called “#Ansar Bangla 7” said in a tweet that he had been killed because of his “crime against Islam.”

Later, in a video circulated online, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), an affiliate of al-Qaeda, said its operatives had hacked Roy to death, according to SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors terrorist activities online.

After Chatterjee was hacked to death last week, media outlets received an email in which a group called Ansar-al-Islam claimed responsibility for the killing.

Bangladesh police believe local hardline Islamist group Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), which was banned by the authorities in May, is using different names like Ansar Bangla 7 and Ansar-al-Islam and it that it is behind the killings of all the bloggers. ABT claimed responsibility of killing three of the four bloggers who were killed in Bangladesh this year.

In the case of the killing of Roy, police arrested one suspect who, according to the investigators, might have had instigated the attack on the blogger using the social media. Two of the three men who killed blogger Washiqur Rahman in March were caught by bystanders at the scene of the crime.

Sincerity of police questioned

But family members have been baffled that even when suspects in the killings are identified, police have struggled to locate and arrest them. Former university professor Ajoy Roy, father of killed blogger Avijit Roy, said, police told him they had identified two of his son’s three killers, more than three months ago.

“But they have not been able to catch any of them. It does not make sense. I don't think it should take more than a week to capture them, if they have already been identified,” Roy said to VOA.

Roy and other critics say they believe there may be sympathizers in the police force who have stalled the investigations, protecting the killers.

In May, three months before he was killed, Chatterjee complained to the police that suspicious people were trailing him at public places and he feared for his life. But police did not take his complaint seriously, he claimed in a Facebook post.

The country’s police chief, AKM Shahidul Haque, said in his news conference this week that if officers did indeed deny help to Chatterjee, they were wrong to do so. But he also said that the bloggers could face jail if their writings offended the religious sentiments of others.

“If someone feels that any writing has offended his religious sentiment, he should move the court. We shall extend our best cooperation and arrest the writer. We shall seek legal action against the writer seeking punishment for him... I also request the freethinkers not to cross the limit,” Haque said.

Bangladesh’s legal code is secular and based on British Common law. But extreme interpretations of Islam have gained ground in recent years, clouding the legal protections for free speech when it comes to religious and other sensitive issues.

Blogger activist Imran H. Sarker, who leads the Blogger and Online Activist Network in Bangladesh, said the police chief’s comments will encourage more killings.

“He did not say that the killers are crossing the limits. He also did not discourage their activities. His comment that the bloggers are crossing the limits has come in support of the killers. Such a comment which encourages the killers is not expected from the law and order head of a country,” Sarkar said.