KOLKATA, INDIA - Four secular bloggers have been murdered in Bangladesh this year, and many others say they do not feel safe. Fearing for their lives, some online writers have left the country, and others are working quietly to flee.
“Many of them have already left Bangladesh. Recently we knew that one European organization had received about 400 applications from bloggers who want to leave Bangladesh fearing for their lives. This organization provides the troubled freethinkers safer space to live and work,” said Shammi Haque, a blogger and activist.
“I, too, cannot stay away from blogging and related activism. But I don’t know how long I can continue this struggle to keep myself alive,” she said. Haque recently has been given police protection after she was trailed by some suspicious people.
Bangladesh police say they are investigating the murder cases and suspects have been arrested. They also say they are doing their best to provide security to threatened bloggers.
“Following threats, some bloggers felt insecure and they are approaching us seeking security. Also, we know some prominent bloggers who are living under threats,” said Muntasirul Islam, deputy commissioner of the media wing of Dhaka Metropolitan Police.
Although many bloggers went into hiding in 2013 as soon as a group of Islamists drew up a list of 84 “anti-Islam” online atheists and called for their public execution, in the past two-and-a-half years five atheist bloggers and five secular activists who supported them have been hacked to death.
Their relatives and supporters are frustrated with the slow pace of the investigations. Bloggers, too, complain that police inaction and attitude may encourage more attacks.
Last month the national police chief said legal action would be taken against bloggers if their writings offended people.
Atheist blogger Ibrahim Khalil, who has received many death threats from the Islamists and now lives in hiding, said he has lost all hope of support from the government and its security agencies.
“The state is siding with the fundamentalists who are killing the bloggers. The government is not acting against the killers the way they should. Sometimes they arrest some suspects, but we see them released on bail after some time,” Khalil said. “The secular space in the country is constantly shrinking in Bangladesh.”
Michael de Dora is with the Center for Inquiry, a U.S. organization that fosters secular society and humanist values. He said his organization has been in touch with secular bloggers in Bangladesh and thinks the free speech situation in the country is grim.
“In fact with the last blogger who was killed you had a case in which actually went and told them repeatedly that he was receiving death threats and they advised him to leave the country,” said de Dora.
Police: working efficiently
Deputy Commissioner Islam said more than a dozen suspects in the blogger murders have been arrested. He said that shows the investigations are making good progress, even if the details are not being made public.
“For operational reasons we often don’t divulge information on the progress of the investigations. If we make public of such information our investigations may suffer setbacks,” Islam said. He also said the police provide some covert security to threatened bloggers to enhance their protection.
He added that the police expect to arrest all the suspected killers soon and pointed out that on Tuesday, five suspected Islamic extremists were charged in court with the murder of atheist blogger Washiqur Rahman. He was killed in a machete attack in March.
The bloggers do not appear impressed, however, with the role of police in the face of death threats from the Islamists.
Insecure bloggers flee
“The state has failed to provide security to the free-thinking or rationalist bloggers and activists. On the other hand, it is threatening legal actions against them. The free thinkers who are leaving Bangladesh now are actually being forced to leave their country,” said blogger Maruf Rosul.
The assailants mostly chose public places to attack the bloggers. But after they managed last month to get into the living room of blogger Niladri Chatterjee in Dhaka and hacked him to death, others say that they do not feel safe anywhere.
“Since 2013 I have been playing hide-and-seek with the people who are out to kill the bloggers. The public places and my workplace turned unsafe before. Now I don’t feel safe even inside my house,” Khalil said.
Although Khalil said that he left his outdoor job last month fearing for his life, he would not say if he is trying to leave Bangladesh.
“I want to keep on writing. I also want to live a full life … I cannot stay alive in Bangladesh even if I stop writing today because they have already issued a death warrant against me,” he said.