Bangladesh's bloggers are in a state of high alert following the hacking to death of Ananta Bijoy Das on May 12. He was the third blogger to be murdered this year, and the fourth since 2013. As they complain that the authorities seem indifferent to the danger they face, threats of violence against these online scribes have only increased.
The commentators who were included in a list of 84 secularist and atheist bloggers prepared by Islamic hardliners in 2013 are particularly alarmed. Those named on the list have been targeted and attacked by fundamentalists who accuse them of propagandizing against Islam. Three of them are now dead.
Many of the bloggers on the list have fled the country, while those who have remained have largely chosen to change their writing to ensure their safety and that of their relatives.
When he started blogging in 2008, Shubhajit Bhowmik wrote about politics, religion, and other issues.
"I received threats in my inbox or over phone back then," Bhowmik, who is now in his late-twenties, told VICE News. "But I did not give much importance to them."
The situation worsened when his father was also menaced.
"Between 2010 and 2012, some of my detractors went as far as to take photos out of my social media profiles," he recalled. "They managed to identify my father and began sending him emails warning him that the kind of things I was writing about were dangerous for the well-being of our family."
Concern among the online community was heightened when a group of assailants stabbed the blogger Asif Mohiuddin outside of his office in the capital of Dhaka in January 2013. His blog was critical of Islam and other religions, and featured a tagline that described God as "almighty only in name, but impotent in reality."
The following February, assailants killed the architect and blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider, known in the blogosphere as "Thaba baba," near his house in Dhaka. Five suspects were arrested for his murder, confessing that he was attacked because of his online posts about Islam. They were members of the militant Islamist group Ansarullah Bangla Team, which the police believe is linked to al Qaeda.
When hardliners released the list of 84 bloggers whose writing they said challenged Islam, they called for them to be sued if they did not repent. Cases filed against them led to the arrests in 2013 of four of them, including Mohiuddin, for allegedly "defaming" religion.
"Mohiuddin was kept in the same jail block as his attackers," said Bhowmik. The bloggers have been aggressively harassed ever since the release of the list. "We are now hunted by the militant organizations and the government."
Bhowmik was among those who stopped writing about religion for the sake of safety. At the end of the day, he said, "the fear of life is more important than the so-called power of the pen."
When VICE News contacted him about the impact the threat of violence has had on his writing, the blogger Sannyasi wrote that he had initially resisted adjusting his emphasis after his inclusion on the list.
"Someone threatened to kill me by tracing my IP and location to pinpoint my residence," he said. "He took a screenshot on the map and sent it to me via Facebook."
But though he was defiant at first, Sannyasi said that he softened his writing after the murder of Avijit Roy.
"I feel extremely insecure. I have stopped going anywhere except to my office where I go when accompanied by others and return with them," he said. "I am always wary of people's movement in public places."
Roy, a dual US-Bangladeshi citizen, was an atheist blogger who had written a book titled The Virus of Faith, which likened religious extremism to an infectious disease. He was killed during an annual literary festival in Dhaka in February after he had come to Bangladesh to promote the book. His murder was soon followed by the hacking to death of the bloggers Washiqur Rahman and Ananta Bijoy Das.
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Bangladesh police suspect that Ansarullah Bangla Team was also behind the killings of Roy, Rahman, and Das. Though persecuted bloggers have criticized the government for harassing and arresting them, arguing that it appears to be in league with fundamentalists — "The picture is very clear," Mohuiddin has said. "The government is on their side" — the Home Ministry banned the militant group on Monday following a request by police.
The move is promising, but a small step forward in a country where freedom of expression can be fatal.
Ananya Azad, a writer whose name also appeared on the list of marked bloggers, told VICE News that he is receiving threats but does not actually consider himself a blogger. He is the son of noted Bangladeshi writer and linguist Humayun Azad, who in 2004 was attacked by assailants with cleavers near the University of Dhaka, where he taught, after he published a novel satirizing the politics of Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh. The elder Azad survived with serious injuries and died of a heart attack in Germany a few months later. Investigators determined that the attack was carried out by members of the banned militant outfit Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh.
"I do feel insecure in a country where freedom of speech is being constrained," Ananya Azad said, suggesting that the Bangladeshi government was indirectly avoiding the issue despite banning some extremist groups.
He had in mind remarks delivered in a recent interview by Sajeeb Wazed, the son of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and an informal consultant for the ruling party, Bangladesh Awami League. Though he said that his mother had offered private condolences to Avijit Roy's father, Wazed added that the country's political situation is simply too unstable for her to comment about the murder publicly.
"We are walking a fine line here," he said. "We don't want to be seen as atheists. It doesn't change our core beliefs. We believe in secularism…. But given that our opposition party plays that religion card against us relentlessly, we can't come out strongly for him. It's about perception, not about reality."
Barrister Jyotirmoy Barua, who represented the four bloggers who were arrested in 2013, told VICE News that many of the country's bloggers have informed him that they are being followed and threatened. Though the government has banned Ansarullah Bangla Team, Barua is disappointed at the lack of special steps to protect the bloggers, which he expects is because of their secularism. This indifference from the government, he said, "is purely a political move."
"Due to these reasons, those who were protesting against social ills and other issues are no longer vocal," he said, lamenting the rise in extremism. "Bangladesh cannot progress if this trend continues."
Follow Syed Tashfin Chowdhury on Twitter: @Tashfinster