NEW YORK—The brutal attack on prominent professor and writer Dr. Zafar Iqbal is a threat to free expression that demands a strong response from the government of Bangladesh, PEN America said in a statement today. 

Iqbal, a professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the Shahjalal University of Science and Technology in Sylhet, was attacked with a knife and a metal object while judging a ceremony on March 3, according to news reports. He suffered wounds to his head, back, and hand, and was airlifted to a specialized hospital in the capital, Dhaka, after receiving initial treatment at the local hospital. The assailant, named as Faizur Rahman Faizul, was apprehended and beaten by students before being handed over to the police. He allegedly told them that he wanted to kill the professor as he was an “enemy of Islam.” Iqbal had previously received threats from Islamist militant groups and had been provided police protection since October 2016.

“After a lull in such attacks, we are distressed to hear of the brutal assault on Professor Zafar Iqbal,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Director of Free Expression at Risk Programs at PEN America. “Although the government’s initial response has been encouraging in terms of showing support for Iqbal’s care and promising an investigation, we call on authorities to fully investigate the attacker’s links to militant groups and to prosecute both the perpetrator and the masterminds behind the attack to the fullest extent possible under the law. Impunity in such cases only encourages further assaults on free expression.”

Since 2013, religious extremists in Bangladesh have killed more than a dozen secular, atheistic, or non-Muslim writers, bloggers, and activists; in most cases, the government has been slow to respond or even condemn the attacks. In addition, the draconian Information and Communication Technology Act has served only to legitimize these assaults by criminalizing the very speech for which these writers face persecution from extremists. Though the government has increased efforts to curb fundamentalist violence, it has done so while concurrently expanded criminal prosecution of blasphemous speech, with dozens of cases filed in the past several years. PEN America has previously condemned the brutal killings of Bangladeshi writers, professors, and activists such as Xulhaz MannanAvijit Roy, and Rezaul Karim Siddique, among others, and continues to work on numerous cases of other writers driven into exile by these threats.


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.


Anoosh Gasparian, External Relations Coordinator: