KOLKATA - The verdict in which two students have been sentenced to death and six others to prison for their role in the hacking to death of an atheist blogger in Bangladesh has largely been rejected by his relatives and the blogger community of the country.
A group of Islamist militants killed Rajib Haider in a machete attack in front of his house in Dhaka in February 2013. Nearly three years later, a fast track tribunal on Thursday handed down the death penalty to Faisal bin Nayeem and Rezwanul Azad Rana - who was tried in absentia - for killing the blogger.
One defendant was sentenced to life in prison, while the others received terms between three and 10 years. According to the court, firebrand Muslim cleric Jasimuddin Rahmani inspired the killers with his sermons. He was sentenced to five years.
Rahmani headed the hardline Islamist group Ansarullah Bangla Team, which has been charged by police for killing all five secular bloggers in Bangladesh.
Nazimuddin, Haider’s father, said the verdict had not served justice.
“Five among the eight defendants admitted that they had taken part in the killing of my son. Yet only one among those five was handed out the death penalty and the others were prison terms. I reject this verdict and I shall appeal against it in a higher court,” Nazimuddin, who uses one name, said.
Apart from blogging for websites that criticize Islam, Haider was also known as an activist of Bangladesh’s Gonojagoron Mancho, or National Awakening Forum; a group that seeks the executions of all who committed war crimes during the country’s 1971 war of independence.
Imran Sarker, who leads Mancho, said he was disappointed by the verdict.
“As it is the judicial practice across the world, those who incite people to commit ghastly crimes are sentenced to strictest punishments. But, we are surprised that the cleric, who actually took the role of the mastermind in this case, got away with only five years of jail term. It appears, the verdict aimed to protect some of the defendants,” Sarker, who also heads Bangladesh’s Blogger and Online Activist Network, said to VOA.
“We shall launch movement seeking stricter punishment of the cleric and also some others who got away with lesser penalties in the case.”
Legal system concerns
The hacking to death of Haider in early 2013 marked the first slaying of an atheist blogger by Islamists in Bangladesh.
In the past three years, including Haider, five atheist bloggers have been killed in the country. Relatives and friends of the killed bloggers long complained that the government was not keen to punish the killers which, they said, encouraged more attacks on the freethinkers.
Anisul Haq, law minister of Bangladesh, said that Thursday’s verdict will help restore confidence in the legal system in Bangladesh.
“The verdict in the case of Rajib in a very short time by the fast track tribunal has restored people’s faith in law and justice in the country. Thursday’s verdict has sent out a strong signal that none will escape punishment after committing any ghastly crime,” Haq said.
'Sword Mightier than pen'
Blogger Ananya Azad said that it was not true that the verdict in Haider’s case restored people’s faith in the judiciary.
“Five convicts in the case said that they had killed Haider and that they were on a mission to wipe off all freethinkers. Yet, some of them were let off with few years of jail terms. When these men will come out of jail after a few years, they will go out on killing spree against the freethinking people again,” Azad said to VOA.
“This verdict shows that the sword is mightier than the pen.”
But others say this may mark a beginning of Bangladesh's efforts to protect free speech.
The convictions in the murder of Haider mark a long overdue but encouraging first step in addressing the violence directed against bloggers in Bangladesh, said Sumit Galhotra, Asia research associate of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
He said in a statement: “If Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government is committed to protecting the country's independent voices, it must act decisively to deliver justice in the murders of other bloggers and ensure the protection of those who remain at risk.”