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Trapped Between Murder and Repression: Life as an Atheist Blogger in Bangladesh

Four bloggers and a publisher have been hacked to death in Bangladesh in 2015. Yet, as the survivor of a previous attack told VICE News, atheist writers there also have to deal with government repression.
Photo by Monirul Alam/EPA

Asif Mohiuddin was leaving his office in a northern suburb of Bangladesh's capital Dhaka when a group of knife-wielding men set upon him and stabbed him nine times. As he lay in hospital receiving emergency treatment, doctors told him one of the blades had come within a millimeter of his spinal cord and he was unlikely to survive.

His crime, in the eyes of his attackers, was writing blog posts that promoted atheism, secularism, and liberal ideas such as LGBT rights and gender equality. He was singled out as an enemy of Islam by radical clerics, whose followers were encouraged to kill him.


"The Islamist groups posted my picture on the street saying that 'this is the number one enemy of Islam and this person needs to be slaughtered in public,' they demanded my public execution," Mohiuddin told VICE News.

The targeting of Mohiuddin in January 2013 marked the beginning of a spate of attacks against atheist and secularist bloggers in Bangladesh. Ahmed Rajib Haider was killed outside his home in Dhaka less than a month later by a gang of men armed with machetes. Haider was so badly mutilated that family members and neighbors who arrived at the scene were reportedly unable to recognize his body.

This year, four bloggers and a publisher have been murdered in the same brutal way, with many of the attacks occurring in public places during daylight hours.

In February, Bangladeshi-American blogger Ajavit Roy was hacked to death at a busy book fair in Dhaka, while in the most recent case, on October 31, publisher Faisal Arefin Dipan was murdered by a gang of men who burst into his office. Earlier the same day, publisher Ahmedur Rashid Tutul and bloggers Ranadipam Basu and Tareq Rahim were severely injured in a separate attack.

Security officials inspect the room of the publishing house where unknown assailants stabbed a publisher and two bloggers on October 31. (Photo by Suvra Kanti Das/EPA)

In the face of public outcry, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has publicly vowed to track down the killers, but the majority of the culprits remain at large. Some of those who have been arrested have admitted being members of the extremist Ansarullah Bangla Team, whose leading figures were detained in May, though several other radical groups have also been linked to the attacks.


Meanwhile, instead of offering protection to those bloggers who have received death threats, the ruling Awami League has regularly called for them to halt religious criticism in their writings and even pursued criminal proceedings against some under Section 57 of the country's Information, Communications, and Technology Act — a de-facto blasphemy law that observers say is also used to silence government critics.

"It says that the government can actually arrest someone for publishing something hurtful to other people's religious sentiment," said Dr. Ali Riaz, a political scientist at Illinois State University (ISU) who is a prominent expert on Bangladesh.

'I thought the government would protect me, but the government censored my blog, they deleted my blog in Bangladesh, they arrested me'

"It's so vague, so open, so wide, that it can be used and has been used by the government [as a blasphemy law]," he said. "This allows police to arrest anyone without any warrant."

According to Aura Freeman, a Bangladesh-focused researcher for Amnesty International, the threat of detention has exacerbated a culture of fear among atheist and secularist online activists that has left them with few options but to flee the country.

"We're in a situation where bloggers, other bloggers who are in hiding now, are unable to access the protection they need because if they go to the police and explain the situation, explain that they're an atheist or secular blogger, they may well be arrested," she said.


In the case of Mohiuddin, after a month of treatment in hospital he was arrested and interrogated for eight days, during which he says he was tortured by police, before being imprisoned for three and a half months.

"I thought the government would protect me, but the government censored my blog, they deleted my blog in Bangladesh, they arrested me," Mohiuddin said. "Maybe the government tried to kill me [in prison] because my attackers were [placed] in the same cell with me."

Under a constant barrage of death threats after his release, Mohiuddin escaped to Germany, where he was granted asylum.

Related: Islamic State Claims Second Fatal Shooting of Foreigner in Bangladesh

Now residing in Berlin, he says he receives hundreds of threats each month, mainly from Bangladeshis living in Germany and the UK.

He also receives calls for help from fellow activists still living in Bangladesh and has worked alongside organizations such as Amnesty International to assist some in getting out. At least a dozen now reside in Europe and North America.

One of those is Charbak, a blogger who appeared on a list of 84 "enemies of Islam" drawn up by a group of hardline clerics and widely publicized in Bangladeshi media in March 2013, a month after Haider was killed.

"Haider's death made me realize how dangerous a list my name had been included in," said Charbak, who prefers not to reveal his name or location for safety reasons. "He used to criticize [religion] under a pseudonym, as did I. But I thought no extremists would be able to identify me."


In response to Haider's murder, Charbak says he slowed down his online activity, before stopping it altogether in March this year after Washiqur Rahman Babu was slayed in a Dhaka street a month after Roy's killing.

That was followed by the murders of Ananta Bijoy Das in May as he walked to his job in a bank, and Niloy Chatterjee in August, who was hacked to death by six men who broke into his home.

Paralyzed by fear of being the next victim, Charbak became virtually housebound.

"I restricted my movement in the streets, stopped hanging out with friends outside or going shopping or to the cinema, and sometimes even started missing work, because I feared that I might be attacked in the streets from behind," he told VICE News.

Charbak says that while he does not believe the clerics who drew up the original list of 84 names are necessarily linked to the assailants, they did inspire extremist groups to carry out the attacks and the publication of more hit lists.

They also apparently spurred new radical groups to emerge.

Related: Islamic Militant Group Circulates Hit List of International Bloggers and Activists

In August, following Chatterjee's murder, a previously unknown group calling itself Ittahadul Mujahidin sent a hit list to local newspapers of 20 bloggers, artists, teachers, and government ministers accused of insulting Islam. The first name on the list was Chatterjee's and had been crossed out.


In a response typifying the attitude of the authorities, the inspector general of police, Shahidul Hoque, called on bloggers not to "cross the limits" or offend people's religious sentiments.

According to Dr. Subho Basu, an expert on Bangladeshi history at McGill University, the government's failure to protect the bloggers is partly driven by a desire to maintain their image as a bastion of Bangladesh's successful war for independence from Pakistan in 1971.

People gather on the spot where Bangladeshi blogger Avijit Roy was killed in a street in Dhaka in February. (Photo by Abir Abdullah/EPA)

With a series of trials of opposition political leaders accused of committing war crimes in 1971 currently ongoing and receiving widespread public support, the government does not want to squander political capital among a population that is more than 90 per cent Muslim.

"They want to be portrayed as champions of the spirit of the 1971 liberation struggle," Basu said. "They do not want to be associated with people who do not believe in religion or even do not believe in god."

Ironically, many of the bloggers that are now being abandoned or fear imprisonment by the Awami League, helped the party sweep to power in 2008.

Leading up to that election, online activists bolstered a surge in public demand for perpetrators of atrocities in 1971 to be brought to justice — a demand the Awami League promised to act on.

'As democratic space has started to shrink, it has created a hospitable environment for the militant groups to operate'

Following their election, the Awami League set up the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) to oversee the cases and prominent opposition figures were arrested and bought to trial. Most were from Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party that collaborated with Pakistani forces during the war.


In February 2013, the ICT found Jamaat-e-Islami member Abdul Quader Molla guilty of the murder of more than 300 civilians during the war and handed him a life sentence.

In response, a widespread public protest known as the Shahbag movement erupted to demand the death penalty for Molla and other war criminals, with many of those same online activists again becoming prominent organizers — though as an opponent of capital punishment, Mohiuddin was not among them.

The Awami League swiftly amended the ICT's sentencing capacity and Molla was hanged in December that year.

Since then, despite widespread condemnation from international observers over a lack of due process and international justice standards in the trials, six more prominent opposition figures have been handed death sentences by the ICT, with one hanged in April and two more hanged last month.

Related: Fourth Bangladeshi Blogger This Year Hacked to Death by Machete-Wielding Gang

According to Riaz, whose book Islamist Militants in Bangladesh was published in 2008, the involvement of the bloggers in demanding the trials and executions of Islamist politicians only partly explains the attacks, which have occurred with a longstanding backdrop of rising radicalism in the country.

While legal proceedings against Jamaat-e-Islami leaders provoked violent responses from the group's supporters and likely stoked the rise of more intolerant Islamism, Riaz is keen to point out that Islamic extremism had been brewing in Bangladesh since the early- to mid-1990s, as men began returning from fighting with the mujahideen in Afghanistan.


Exposure to more radical forms of Islam in Gulf States among migrant workers in recent decades has also been a contributing factor, according to Basu.

Both scholars agree that privately financed Islamic education facilities, known as Qawmi madrasas, are often breeding grounds for radical Islamic thinking, and this has seen the institutions draw sharp criticism from atheist and secularist bloggers.

Thousands of protesters take part in the funeral of Ahmed Rajib Haider, a 26-year-old blogger who was found dead on 15 February 2013. (Photo by Photo by Monirul Alam/EPA)

According to Basu, in many cases the funding for Qawmi madrasas comes from "certain individuals in Saudi Arabia and certain kinds of groups and networks in Saudi Arabia" keen to propagate the radical Wahhabi Islam practiced there.

In the absence of an adequate network of state-provided secular education, Basu says many poor families in Bangladesh can ill-afford to turn down the free board, food, and education that Qawmi madrasas offer their children, opening them up to radicalization.

But for Riaz, a significant portion of the blame for the rise of the sort of violent extremism that has bred the blogger attacks lays in the Awami League's attempts to implement "control over almost everything."

According to Riaz, in recent years, the marginalization of the main political opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, as well as the curtailing of civil society groups and press freedoms, is denying many people a legitimate outlet for discontent.

Related: Threats, Attacks, and Murders Keep Bloggers in Bangladesh on Edge

"As democratic space has started to shrink, it has created a hospitable environment for the militant groups to operate," he said. "In the absence of a robust, inclusive political alternative, marginal groups have more opportunity to recruit the disaffected."

And it is the bloggers who have been caught in the middle; victimized both by increasing government repression and the growing extremism it begets.

Yet despite the deaths of his friends and scars he will wear for the rest of his life, Mohiuddin insists the victimization of bloggers should not be allowed to dominate their narrative.

"I don't want to be pictured as a victim," he says. "If I die someday, some other person should carry on. I need to focus on our struggle, our activism, not focus on me. I am just a person, but the activism must go on."

Follow Charles Parkinson on Twitter: @charlesparkinsn