The worst thing most bloggers have to deal with is online trolls, but bloggers in Bangladesh have to worry about machetes. The country has been dealing with a long-running spate of murders of liberal, atheist, and secular bloggers by Islamist militants. The killings–sometimes claimed by al Qaeda and sometimes by ISIS affiliates–illustrate a culture of violence that Dhaka has been unable to rein in. The murdered include LGBT activists, liberal professors, and secular bloggers.
The latest deaths were those of Xulhaz Mannan and Tonoy Rabbi Mahbub, a pair of LGBT activists, who were murdered on April 25. Mannan, the founder of Bangladesh’s only LGBT magazine, was murdered in his apartment along with his friend, Mahbub, a fellow openly gay man and rights activist. In a press statement, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the “barbaric murder” of Mannan, who was a locally-hired employee of the U.S. embassy working with USAID.
The killings were claimed by the Bangladeshi branch of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), Ansar al Islam. The group targeted Mannan and Mahbub for their status as gay men and their activism. “They were pioneers of practicing and promoting homosexuality in Bangladesh,” the group’s statement says.
Homosexuality is criminalized in Bangladesh. The Associated Press noted that in a May 2014 blog, Mannan wrote that Bangladesh is “[a] country where the predominant religions say you are a sinner, the law of the land says you are a criminal, the social norms say you are a pervert, the culture considers you as imported.”
On April 23, Rezaul Karim Siddique, an English professor at the University of Rajshahi was hacked to death. The SITE Intelligence Group says that his killing was claimed by the Islamic State, although the Bangladeshi government denies that ISIS exists in the country. According to the BBC, Siddique is the fourth professor to be murdered at the university in recent years.
Also in April, Nazimuddin Samad, a law student and blogger, was attacked with a machete and shot in Dhaka.
As reported by The Guardian, Amnesty International’s South Asia director, Champa Patel, said: “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.”
Human Rights Watch, following the murders of Mannan and Tonoy called on the Bangladeshi authorities to do more to protect activists. HRW noted that “The killings of Mannan and Mahbub brings to nine the number of liberals hacked to death in Bangladesh in 2016.” Islamic extremist groups in Bangladesh have published several hitlists of bloggers since 2013.
The problem is clear: liberal bloggers–whether atheists, secularists, or gay–are being targeted by extremists and the state is unable to protect them or meaningfully confront the issue.
One problem is Bangladesh’s moribund politics. The rivalry between Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League dates back to the country’s independence in 1971. The two powerful politicians have been trading the premiership since the 1990s. Hasina has been prime minister since 2009, having previously served from 1996 to 2001 and Zia held that office from 1991 to 1996 and from 2001 to 2006.
Hasina herself even said after the most recent killings that “Everybody knows who were behind such killings… the BNP-Jamaat nexus has been engaged in such secret and heinous murders in various forms to destabilise the country.”