Is there a way to protect Bangladeshi writers?
(CNN) – A young writer is ambushed on his way home from evening classes. The attackers hack Nazimuddin Samad with machetes and then shoot him, leaving him dead in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Witnesses say they heard the attackers shout: “Allahu akbar.”
It was the sixth killing, in a 14-month-span, targeting intellectuals and writers who have challenged religious dogma in the South Asian nation. These machete attacks, usually in public, are apparent attempts to silence secular voices.
So how do you stop them?
Bangladeshi officials generally insist they will protect those threatened, while implying that such targets bear blame themselves. Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan, for instance, told CNN that while his government would seek justice in Samad’s killing Wednesday, no one has the right to attack religious leaders.
“Why are they using these kind of languages against religious establishment?” he asked.
If Bangladesh’s government won’t step up, should others? Last December, advocates urged the United States to grant temporary visas to Bangladeshi writers in imminent danger from Islamic extremists. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Thursday that a program, also known as humanitarian parole, is “one option that’s under consideration,” but he didn’t elaborate.
Dozens have sought support or protection from outside organizations, feeling that their own government was either unwilling or unable to provide protection, according to PEN America, a freedom of expression group.
Others have gone into hiding. That’s what Samad did last year, though he didn’t stay put for long.
“I am also scared … scared of getting killed,” he wrote, according to a post published on Mukto Mona, a website that frequently challenges religious beliefs. “But what else can I do? It’s better to die rather than living by keeping my head down.”
Minister: Writers must ask for protection
Samad’s death has spurred university students to protest, calling for justice in an increasingly dangerous environment for free speech and the people who exercise it. They say that if the government doesn’t step up, the violence will only get worse.
Yet Bangladesh’s minister for law, justice and parliamentary affairs said that writers who get death threats need to report them to authorities if they feel threatened.
“There are only a few times they contact the police,” said the minister, Anisul Huq. “But whenever it is done, the government feels they should be protected. The government extends protection.”
He suggested that police couldn’t safeguard Avijit Roy, another Bangladeshi writer killed last year after a book fair, because Roy hadn’t informed police that he’d be at the event.
Huq also suggested that writers bear responsibility when their work is controversial.
“You go for a threat when you are hurting someone’s religious feelings,” he said. “It’s natural. Of course, we accept freedom of expression. We are willing to protect it. The thing is, it should be responsible enough not to hurt others’ feelings.”
Machete attacks on writers who are critical of Islam
Several Bangladeshi writers have been killed in ways similar to Samad.
October 2015: Publisher and secular blogger Faisal Arefin Dipan was hacked to death in Dhaka. Three other publishers and bloggers were also hacked and injured in coordinated attacks that day. Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, or AQIS, claimed responsibility for the assaults, saying Dipan and the others made derogatory remarks about the Muslim faith.
August 2015: Blogger Niloy Neel was hacked to death in his Dhaka apartment. Neel had condemned the killings of his fellow bloggers and had also contributed to the Mukto Mona platform. Ansar al Islam Bangladesh, an al Qaeda group, claimed responsibility for the killing
May 2015: Writer Ananta Bijoy Das was hacked to death with cleavers and machetes as he left his home on his way to work at a bank. Das contributed to the Mukto Mona as well.
March 2015: Blogger Washiqur Rahman was hacked to death by two men with knives and meat cleavers just outside his house as he headed to work at a travel agency in Dhaka. He was so maimed — with wounds to his head, face and neck — that police identified him through the voter identification card he was carrying.
February 2015: Bangladesh-born American blogger and writer Avijit Roy and his wife were attacked while leaving a speaking engagement at an annual book fair on the Dhaka University campus. In one of his books, titled “The Virus of Faith,” Roy compared religious extremism to a highly contagious virus. The book infuriated some Islamists. His wife, Rafida Ahmed, survived the attack, but suffered four machete stabs in her head and a mutilated left hand. She told CNN: “Criticizing Islam is becoming a very big crime — a sin — in Bangladesh.”
February 2013: Secular blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider was hacked to death outside his home in Bangladesh by attackers with machetes. Two of the seven men arrested in connection with Haider’s murder received the death penalty. CNN’s Greg Botelho, Sugam Pokharel, Ivan Watson, Yuli Yang, Roshni Majumdar, Yazhou Sun and Saeed Ahmed contributed to this report.