The government of Sheikh Hasina Wazed is under growing pressure in Bangladesh to end an apparent culture of impunity after a series of brutal murders of secular writers, bloggers and liberal intellectuals by radical Isla mists.
A torrent of protest followed the latest killings, on Monday night, of Xulhaz Mannan, editor of the country’s only lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender magazine (LGBT), and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, an actor and fellow gay rights activist. Critics have accused the Awami League government of failing to act effectively to stop the carnage.
“It is shocking that no one has been held to account for these horrific attacks and that almost no protection has been given to threatened members of civil society,” said Amnesty International’s Champa Patel, reacting to the four killings so far this month.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, echoed the criticism, along with other western leaders. Similar protests by Bangladeshi free speech activists and well-known foreign writers have had little discernible effect in the past.
Since 2013, attacks characterised by the assailants’ use of machetes and cleavers have claimed the lives of secular bloggers, authors, journalists, academics and teachers of a supposedly liberal bent. The common denominator is the offence their views supposedly cause to hardline Islamists among Bangladesh’s mostly moderate and tolerant Sunni Muslim majority.
Westerners in general have also been randomly targeted in the past 12 months, as have members of Bangladesh’s Shia and Ahmadi Muslim minorities, Hindus and Christian converts. The geographical spread is expanding, too. Whereas attacks were initially mostly confined to highly observant rural areas, the murder of Xulhaz Mannan and his friend took place in the heart of the capital, Dhaka.
The official response has been seen as largely inadequate. Seven men were convicted last year of a 2013 attack, but most of the murders have gone unsolved and unpunished. This may be in part because Bangladesh is a poor country with a badly resourced police force.
Government curbs on press, television and social media have been blamed for a lack of scrutiny of the growth of religious extremism and of the meek official response. At the same time, the spread of Arab jihadi ideology is linked to the increased use of social media in Bangladesh.
But such factors aside, Hasina and the Awami League stand accused of a lack of political will, and more broadly, of risking the collapse of Bangladesh’s secular, post-independence democratic tradition by marginalising the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP), and over-controlling the national political discourse.
In typically uncompromising fashion, Hasina bluntly blamed the BNP and its Islamist political ally, Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI), for the latest deaths. “The BNP-Jamaat nexus has been engaged in such secret and heinous murders in various forms to destabilise the country … Such killings are being staged in a planned way,” she said.
The government flatly denies international jihadi groups such as Islamic State and al-Qaida are active in the country, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. It claims the killers belong to home-grown groups.
Contradicting official claims, the banned group Ansar al-Islam, the Bangladeshi branch of al-Qaida on the Indian subcontinent, claimed responsibility on Tuesday for killing the two gay rights activists in what it called a “blessed attack”.
It said the two were killed because they were “pioneers of practising and promoting homosexuality in Bangladesh” and were “working day and night to promote homosexuality … with the help of their masters, the US crusaders and its Indian allies”.
Ministers have argued that a crackdown on Islamist groups could offend religious sensibilities and cause more problems than it would solve. Interviewed by the Guardian last autumn, Hasina blamed Britain and unnamed Arab countries for tolerating the rise and global spread of radical Islamist ideas, and in some cases nurturing and funding hardline groups.
“The British government should take more steps on the ground. Jamaat has a strong influence in east London. That’s true; they are collecting money, they are sending money,” she said.
Opposition parties claim the government’s alleged exploitation of the country’s international crimes tribunal investigating mass killings at the time of Bangladesh’s 1971 war of liberation is fuelling extremist violence.
The JEI backed Pakistan against the independence fighters led by Hasina’s father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was later murdered. Several JEI leaders have been sentenced to death or to long prison terms since the tribunal process was launched by Hasina in 2009, to the fury of their hardline supporters.
Bangladesh’s overall inability to get to grips with extremism is in part the result of a fractured political space, where legitimate criticism and debate are increasingly restricted, analysts in Dhaka say. The Awami League’s dominance, coupled with grinding poverty, ongoing human rights abuses and an ineffective, divided opposition, is causing growing polarisation and political stagnation, and placing democracy at risk.