The bodies are piling up fast as murderous religious extremists linked to Islamic State wage a war of hatred.
Those left standing have fled their country in fear of their lives. But whether at home or overseas, these Bangladeshi bloggers won’t stop speaking out for secularism, equality and tolerance.
Niloy Neel was attacked in his home by three or four men with machetes, his wife pushed next door at gunpoint. He was dead in minutes, the fourth blogger to be brutally murdered this year, along with a publisher with ties to one of them.
Another blogger, Shammi Haque, visited his apartment shortly afterwards, and is still haunted by what she saw. “I’m scared,” she told documentary-makers from Al Jazeera. “I can’t sleep well. I just imagine his dead body.”
She, too, began receiving death threats, calling her a prostitute and an animal. “We are missing Niloy Neel and maybe we will also miss you,” said one message.
Another was more direct: “You have to die.”
Haque was in hiding, but her every move was being watched. She realised she had no choice but to leave Bangladesh for Germany, where she continues to write.
The truth about the murders is shrouded in secrecy. One thing is for sure, it’s religious militants making a stand against the country’s long-established secular state.
At least one extremist organisation has made a connection with the Islamic State. “Whether or not it’s responsible for one, two or five murders, it’s hard to tell,” filmmaker James Leong told news.com.au. “We don’t know whether the order came from the top down or it’s a climate of that kind of ideology, where people are going to do these things of their own volition.”
Each murder has triggered huge protests and counter-protests by hundreds of thousands of secularists and religious groups on each side. The government has failed to stop the attacks, although it says it is trying to protect people who have received death threats.
One of many protests against the killing and attacks on the publisher and bloggers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, last month.
One of many protests against the killing and attacks on the publisher and bloggers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, last month.Source:AAP
Leong says it’s difficult to know what the truth is in an emotionally charged scenario. Some say the authorities are trying to balance a complex situation, others say they are playing the two factions off against each other. “The bloggers say the law is draconian and curtails their rights to free speech,” said filmmaker Lynn Lee. “There have been murders on the streets, bomb blasts in public areas. It adds to the uncertainty and fear. Draw blogger killings into the mix and everyone is on edge. The situation is tense.
“The bloggers become more pessimistic.”
After Neel’s death, a hit-list of bloggers emerged, persuading many that it was time to start exercising caution, if not leave their home country altogether.
Asif Mohiuddin, who left for Germany after he was jailed for insulting religion and stabbed in early 2013, said: “In a few years, I guess Bangladesh will be another Pakistan or Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria. If we don’t take serious action now, the future of Bangladesh will be very difficult, very dark.”
Rafida Ahmed Bonya’s husband Avijit Roy was the first blogger killed this year, in February. She remembers only indistinctly being soaked in blood, falling in and out of consciousness and asking repeatedly whether he was still alive. “No one from law enforcement contacted me,” she told the filmmakers from her new home in the US, where she continues he husband’s blog. “They are not getting to the root of this problem.”
Just five weeks after Roy’s death, satirist Washiqur Rahman Babu was murdered. Two months after that, masked men killed blogger Ananta Bijoy Das.
In August, the government announced a breakthrough in investigations, saying they had detained British man Tawhidul Rahman and believed he had masterminded the murders. But his sister, Nasera Begum, said her brother had been in detention for months and denied access to the lithium he needs to treat his bipolar disorder.
Rasel Pervez, a blogger who fled to Japan, has the last word. “In Bangladesh, if you don’t believe in god, it is religious extremists’ right to kill you.”