A coalition of free expression and human rights advocacy groups led by PEN American Center today released an open letter to the U.S. Department of State urging the swift granting of temporary visas, known as humanitarian parole, to threatened secular writers, bloggers, and publishers from Bangladesh after a spate of violent attacks by Islamist extremists this year.

In 2015 alone, five writers and publishers have been brutally killed in Bangladesh, including an American citizen. At least four others have been viciously attacked. Groups such as Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), Ansar al Islam, and Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) have claimed responsibility for the attacks, which target openly secular and atheist bloggers and their allies.  All five murdered writers had previously appeared on a series of “hit lists” published by the hardliners, alongside hundreds of other writers’ names. Blogger Niloy Neel, who was hacked to death with machetes in August, sought government protection after finding his name on the list and receiving other threats, but officials responded only by urging him to stop writing or leave the country.

“Bloggers and writers in Bangladesh have nowhere left to turn, as they face both death threats by extremist groups and fear of arrest on charges of blasphemy by government officials seeking to appease religious authorities,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, PEN’s Director of Free Expression Programs, who recently testified at a U.S. Congressional briefing on the subject. “Dozens of Bangladeshi writers now living in hiding have reached out to our organizations for support and protections their own government is unwilling or unable to provide, creating an insurmountable atmosphere of violence and impunity. Forced to choose between their desire to express themselves and their personal safety, these writers have no other option but to seek solace outside Bangladesh.”

Humanitarian parole is a discretionary visa-granting program intended to provide emergency relief to individuals at risk who would otherwise be inadmissible to the United States. The State Department can appeal to the Department of Homeland Security for the parole in cases of compelling urgency.

“Having championed global efforts to defend internet freedom and fend off threats to religious liberty, the United States should take the lead to save the lives of these bloggers who face the very real risk of being murdered for the crime of  expressing their views online,” said Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of PEN America.  “Humanitarian parole offers a viable way for the US to bring these terrified bloggers to safety.” 

Signatories to the letter include PEN American Center, the Association of American Publishers, the Center for Inquiry, City of Asylum Pittsburgh, Freedom House, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters Without Borders. The full text is available at here.

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Founded in 1922, PEN American Center is an association of 4,000 U.S. writers working to bring down barriers to free expression worldwide. https://pen.org/

CONTACT

Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Director of Free Expression Programs: kdkarlekar@pen.org, (646) 779.4822

Shreya Balhara, Free Expression Programs Coordinator: shreya@pen.org, (212) 334.1994