Bangladesh has arrested three suspects, including a British citizen, for the grisly murders of three secular bloggers. The three accused are suspected Islamist extremists, staunchly opposed to the atheist views of the writers.
They are accused of killing Avijit Roy and Ananta Bijoy Das, who were hacked to death on a busy street, and the killing of Hindu writer Niloy Neel. Their deaths are part of a string of murders of Bangladeshi journalists and writers in recent years.
The Briton, Touhidar Rahman, 58, is believed by authorities to be the mastermind of the attack. All three belong to the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ATB), an Islamist extremist group that Bangladesh banned in May, after global outcry over the killing of the bloggers.
The killings have provoked a maelstrom of controversy in the majority-Muslim country, which, despite being officially secular, is involved in a tug-of-war over ideology. Hardline Islamists are still incensed by the government refusing to pass an anti-blasphemy law, in 2013. The issue created mass protests involving thousands in the capital, Dhaka, and remains a hot topic today.
Strengthening this divide, the country’s top police chief, Shahidul Hoque, alarmed civil rights petitioners on August 7th when he warned journalists not to “cross the limit” when it comes to their reporting. Encouraging the public to be more sensitive when it comes to religion, he said, “for hurting someone’s religious sentiment, the person will be punished by the law”.
The law says one can spend up to 14 years behind bars for insulting the religious belief of others.
Hoque’s comments sparked a call for his immediate resignation by rights activists. “It is victim-blaming, and sends a disastrous message ot both writers and Islamist extremists in Bangladesh”, said the Bangladesh Liberal Forum, in its petition to Hoque to step down. It reprimanded Hoque for failing in his responsibility to “unequivocally and unconditionally condemn the murderous campaign against freethinkers in Bangladesh”.
The Home Minister, Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, went a step further than Hoque in a damaging swipe against the freedom of expression, saying: “Anything that may hurt anyone’s religious sentiment or beliefs should not be written”.
Despite finding the alleged killers of three bloggers, Bangladesh remains on tenterhooks. Two years ago, the ATB group circulated a list of 84 blogger they wanted dead: it contained known atheists, bloggers, journalists and writers. Today, eight of the people on the list are dead.