By NYT Editorial Board
May 8, 2016
Since 2013, more than 20 people in Bangladesh have been murdered by Islamist extremists, many hacked to death. Among the first victims were bloggers who had criticized Islamic fundamentalism. Then, two foreigners, an Italian aid worker and a Japanese farmer, were struck down last year. In just nine days last month, five people were hacked to death.
The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s ruling Awami League Party and its bitter rivalry with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami party are partly to blame. In 2014, Ms. Hasina and her party won elections marred by violence and a boycott by the opposition. Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal, established in 2010 to prosecute those responsible for atrocities during the 1971 war of independence, and has become a political tool of the government, targeting leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami. This, along with extra-judicial killings, torture and disappearances, has eroded faith in the rule of law.
Meanwhile, Ms. Hasina’s government has cracked down on freedom of expression and the press. Last month, Ms. Hasina condemned atheist bloggers, saying: “It’s not at all acceptable if anyone writes against our prophet or other religions.”
All of this is fuelling extremism. The International Crisis Group, an independent organization working to prevent conflict, warns that “heavy-handed measures are denting the government’s legitimacy and, by provoking violent counter responses, benefiting violent party wings and extremist groups alike.” These groups include Ansar al-Islam Bangladesh, an affiliate of Al Qaeda that claimed responsibility for the April 6 murder of a law student, Nazimuddin Samad. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the April 30 murder of Nikhil Chandra Joarder, a Hindu tailor. Yet Ms. Hasina’s government denies that the Islamic State is in Bangladesh.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Xulhaz Mannan, an L.G.B.T. activist who worked at the American Embassy and was killed on April 25 along with a friend, “embodied the spirit of the people of Bangladesh and the pride with which they guard their traditions of tolerance, peace, and diversity.” He offered the “full support” of the United States in investigating the murders.
Ms. Hasina’s government should welcome this support. Few of the attackers have been brought to justice, creating a climate of impunity. The government must protect those who could be targets and restore democratic freedoms and faith in the rule of law. Failing to do so will accelerate the slide into lawlessness.