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 after.
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 accountability.
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 contrary.
But 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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