Since February this year six Bangladeshi bloggers have been killed – hacked to death. Dozens have been forced to flee the country after death threats.
At a recent conference, newly arrived bloggers and one tortured journalist explained what they see as a terrifying and growing threat to free speech in their country.
Ric Wasserman has this story
I meet Tasneem Khalil again after a gap of four years. After he’d just fled Bangladesh and had been granted asylum in Sweden.
An outspoken free thinker at Bangladesh’s largest newspaper, the Daily Star, Tasneem wrote about extrajudicial killings – carried out by the state-sanctioned death squad, Rapid Action Battalion, or RAB.
He was dragged from his house, thrown into a cell and tortured repeatedly. His friends at the Swedish embassy in Dhaka smuggled him out of the country.
He’s here in Stockholm to take part in a forum on human rights abuses, where he will speak on two themes. The first is the systems of state terror, which is the subject of his recent book. Second is the situation in Bangladesh, especially in the wake of the brutal murders that have taken place.
Tasneem is specifically talking about bloggers in Bangladesh being targeted and slashed to death.
But why are bloggers being targeted… and why now?
Protests took place after the hanging of two men, convicted and sentenced to death last year of war crimes during the 1971 independence war with Pakistan.
Ten bloggers have been slain since then. Some say those murders are revenge for the hangings. But Tasneem Khalil says Al Qaeda is behind the killings.
“What is going on right now is an Al Qaeda affiliated group called Ansar al Islam, Bangladesh. They’re the followers of Anwar al-Awlaki. There’s no other way I can describe it other than an insurgency against atheists and free thinkers in Bangladesh and they are carrying out a series of assassinations.”
The most prominent to be killed was writer Avijit Roy, who was hacked to death last year. His wife was also slashed.
The latest: Nazimuddin Samad, a university student just two weeks ago – cut to pieces and then shot in the head.
The four young men and women bloggers at the conference, now living in Sweden come from both Muslim and Hindu families.
They share a common denominator that makes them hated by many in Bangladesh: Not only do they write about taboo subjects, like homosexuality, they are also atheists – non-believers in God.
Foring Camelia is a blogger and filmmaker. She fled to Sweden last year after repeated death threats. Her crime? Advocating women’s rights and being an atheist.
Camelia commented, “Islam has some kind of rules against women’s rights. They don’t believe in equality between man and woman. I thought, why? Because I’m a woman and I can do everything, compared to a man. So this feeling made me an atheist.”
Many of today’s bloggers in Bangladesh started by becoming part of Mukto Mona –first an email list, then an online group for free thinkers and debate.
But the Mukto Mona writers quickly found both the extremists and the state were against them.
Section 57 of the country’s Information Communication and Technology Act states: if any person deliberately publishes any material in electronic form that prejudices the image of the State or person, or causes to hurt to religious belief, the offender will be punished for a maximum 14 years, and minimum 7 years imprisonment.
Thirty cases are being tried, hundreds are under investigation.
It’s dangerous, but we must speak out, says Siddahrtha Dhar, whose best friend Ananta Bijoy Das was killed last year. “When people like us start this kind of venture we know there will be threats to our lives. We accept this fact,” he said.
Das had been expected to attend a conference in Stockholm on press freedom just a week after he was killed, but Swedish consular officials in Bangladesh had declined his visa application.
Ola Larsmo, chairman of Sweden’s PEN, a global association of writers, gets several letters per week from threatened bloggers in Bangladesh.
I asked him what PEN can do to help stop the murders in Bangladesh.
“We are asking the Bangladeshi government how they are living up to their own standards when it comes to protecting these bloggers,” Larsmo commented.