By Champa Patel
August 11, 2016
It was an ordinary Friday afternoon in
Dhaka when, on 7 August 2015, Niloy Neel and his partner Asha Moni heard a
knock on their door. A man in his early 20s entered their flat, took a quick
look around, and then made a call on his mobile phone. A few moments later, a
group of men armed with machetes stormed into the apartment and went straight
for Niloy Neel. Within minutes they viciously hacked him to death and fled –
his head was almost completely severed from his body.
Niloy Neel was a known secular activist and
blogger in Bangladesh who had written against religious extremism and in
support of human rights on the atheist web platform, Mukto Mona (“free mind”).
Ansar-al-Islam - a Bangladeshi group that purports to kill in the name of
Islam, and has links to al-Qaeda - claimed responsibility for the killing soon
Niloy Neel was the fourth secular activist
hacked to death since 2013, but he was not to be the last. Since his murder,
the numbers slain in targeted killings has soared to at least 30. The victims
were chiefly secular voices to begin with, but the assailants have expanded
their range of targets to include LGBTI activists, members of religious
minorities, and an English professor. To add to this, in early July 2016 gunmen
stormed the Holey Bakery in Dhaka's upscale Gulshan neighbourhood and massacred
at least 20 people, including 18 foreigners and two Bangladeshis.
Regardless of the identity of the victims,
these killings have had one thing in common: the culture of impunity that
surrounds their deaths. While the police have made a handful of arrests in
Niloy Neel's case, no one has been produced in court yet, let alone convicted.
In fact, since 2013, we are only aware of one case – the killing of blogger
Rajib Haider – where anyone has been tried and found guilty. Amnesty
International and many others have highlighted this alarming absence of
As the death toll has risen over the past
year, the response from Bangladeshi authorities has also changed. When secular
activists were being attacked, high-level government officials seemed more
interested in blaming the victims for their own killing. Instead of offering
protection to secularists, they told them to stop exercising their freedom of
expression and adopt silence as their only line of defence. Many government
officials also sought to make political capital out of the tragedies, darkly
suggesting that it was the opposition Bangladesh National Party and its allies
that were behind the violence, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the
recently – prompted, perhaps, by the killing of a senior police officer's wife
in early June – the authorities have suddenly spurred into action.
In June, as many as 15,000 people across
the country were arrested in a huge
swoop, although the authorities conceded that only some 150 of them were
actually confirmed members of violent groups. The others appear to be suspects
of a range of crimes – thefts, drug dealing, or violence - or simply lived
nearby militant groups. Rights groups have raised concerns about the
arbitrariness of the arrests. There were reports of the police blackmailing the
families of those detained to ensure they were released. Many opposition
supporters were also among those arrested, which fits a well-established
pattern in Bangladesh where thousands of BNP activists have been jailed since
the last election in 2014. Other suspects have been killed in so-called
“crossfire” shooting with the police, with minimal to no accountability or
details made public.
No less concerning is that after the Holey
Bakery attack, two of the surviving hostages, who were kept by gunmen in the
restaurant during the siege, were held incommunicado for weeks without access
to lawyers or family members. It was only a month after the attack, on 4
August, that they were finally produced in court and officially arrested.
This speaks to the heart of the issue.
While it is encouraging that the authorities are finally paying attention to
the wave of violence, it is dismaying that they seem prepared to sacrifice
human rights to promote their own style of security.
There are immediate steps Bangladesh can,
and must, take to improve the situation. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people
in the country now fear they could become the next target for violent groups.
These include free thinkers like Niloy Neel, members of Bangladesh's
beleaguered LGBTI community, or minority religious groups like the Hindus. Far
too often, they have been rebuffed or harassed when they approach the police
for protection – or even charged with a crime themselves. Indeed, Niloy Neel's
appeals to the police for security were recklessly spurned mere weeks before
his killing. Their only suggestion was that he leave the country.
Bangladesh has a range of laws on the books
– such as the Information and Communications Technology Act – that criminalise
freedom of expression. These are often used against critics or others the
government find inconvenient. In 2014, for example, four secular activists were
charged under this law for “offending religious sentiments”, one of whom had just
barely escaped alive from a machete attack.
On the anniversary of Niloy Neel's murder,
Bangladesh must honour his memory by making a genuine effort to hold those
responsible to account, and to protect others exercising their right to freedom
of expression. Those responsible must be brought to justice, but only after
fair trials and without recourse to the death penalty. And those brave enough
to speak their minds should be protected and encouraged, and not told to stop
writing or themselves be charged with a crime.
Champa Patel is Director, South Asia Amnesty International
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