U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has condemned the murder of Bangladeshi gay rights activist Xulhaz Mannan, who was an employee of the U.S. embassy in Dhaka.
Kerry said in a statement late Monday: "We are profoundly saddened by the loss of one of our own in such a senseless act of violence." He also said Xulhaz "embodied the spirit of the people of Bangladesh and the pride with which they guard their traditions of tolerance, peace, and diversity."
USAID official Mannan, who also worked as a protocol officer in the U.S. embassy in Dhaka, was at his home with his friend, Mehboob Rabbi Tanoy, when five attackers arrived, disguised as couriers and pounced on them with machetes.
Mannan, 35, who was the editor of the country’s only gay and transgender magazine Roopban, and fellow gay rights activist and theater worker, Tanoy, 26, died on the spot.
Although police have not identified the attackers, commissioner of Dhaka Metropolitan Police Asaduzzaman Mia said it was a case of “target killing.”
“We have collected important evidence from the spot. We shall be able to identify the killers soon before they are arrested. …Some militants might have been behind today’s killings,” Mia said Monday.
A security guard and a police officer- who tried to catch the assailants - were wounded in machete attacks.
Several witnesses told police that the assailants shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) while fleeing, and the killings resembled the murders of several secular bloggers and activists in Bangladesh over the past few years.
Earlier this month, Mannan said he had been receiving online death threats from Islamists opposed to his rights activities.
In Bangladesh, where more than 90 percent of the country’s 160 million population is Muslim, several Islamist groups have long resorted to protests and agitation over issues they say threaten Islam.
They have called for the execution of atheist bloggers, and since 2013, five bloggers and one publisher have been hacked to death in Bangladesh. Police blame Ansarullah Bangla Team, a local hardline Islamist group, for the killings.
However, Islamic State militants have claimed responsibility for the murders of an Italian aid worker, a Japanese farming expert, two Shi'ite people and a muezzin of a Shi'ite mosque late last year.
IS also claimed responsibility for the February killing of a Hindu priest, the murder of a law student earlier this month in Dhaka, and Saturday’s hacking death of a university professor in northwest Bangladesh. However, no group has claimed responsibility for the killings of Mannan and Tanoy.
Bangladeshi authorities say IS has no foothold in Bangladesh and that local militant groups, supported by opposition parties, are behind the crimes.
Soon after Monday’s killings, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said that Mannan and Tanoy were the latest victims of a “conspiracy” to “destabilize the country.”
“The Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its ally Jamaat-e-Islami is engineering such secret killings to destabilize the country,” Hasina said. The BNP is led by Khaleda Zia, a former prime minister.
Rights Group Expresses Shock
Amnesty International’s South Asia director Champa Patel said Monday’s killings "underscore the appalling lack of protection being afforded to a range of peaceful activists in the country."
“There have been four deplorable killings so far this month alone. It is shocking that no one has been held to account for these horrific attacks, and that almost no protection has been given to threatened members of civil society,” Patel said in a statement.
USAID’s administrator Gayle Smith said the agency has lost “one of our own,” as she condemned the murder. She described Mannan as “the kind of person willing to fight for what he believed in; someone ready to stand up for his own rights and the rights of others.”
The U.S. State Department said, "We are outraged" by the killings, and Marcia Bernicat, U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, said she is “devastated by the brutal murder” of Mannan and Tanoy.
"Xulhaz was more than a colleague to those of us fortunate to work with him at the U.S. Embassy. He was a dear friend,” the ambassador said in a statement.