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Bangladeshi blogger named on hitlist warned: ’You will be next’

Saturday 30 May 2015, by siawi3


Thursday 28 May 2015 08.00 BST
Last modified on Friday 29 May 2015 00.03 BST

Ananya Azad among the writers concerned for their safety after murder of three men who criticised intolerance and religious fundamentalism

PHOTO: Bangladeshi secular activists take part in a torchlit protest in Dhaka after the murder of the blogger Avijit Roy in February. Photograph: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP

by Saad Hammadi in Dhaka

Ananya Azad is no stranger to assassination attempts. The prominent Bangladeshi blogger’s father, Humayun Azad, wrote a scathing critique of Islamist fundamentalism in 2003 entitled Pak Sar Jamin Sad Bad (Blessed Be the Sacred Land, the title of Pakistan’s national anthem). A year after it was published, Humayan was seriously injured in a street attack by assailants wielding machetes.

Now, it is his son’s turn to fear the outside world. Ananya followed in his father’s footsteps to become a writer critical of intolerance and religious fundamentalism, a career that has landed him on a hitlist containing the names of 84 atheist bloggers.

The list was submitted to Bangladesh’s interior ministry in 2013 by a group of radical Islamists asking for the writers to be punished for making derogatory statements about Islam and the prophet Muhammad. At the time, few bloggers believed they were seriously in danger. But on 12 May, science writer Ananta Bijoy Das became the third person named on that list to be murdered in the street this year.

“People have told me to refrain from writing,” said 25-year-old Ananya, who quit his job as a newspaper columnist after Washiqur Rahman became the second blogger on the list to be killed, hacked to death in Dhaka in March.

Last week, following the attack on Das, Ananya received a threatening Facebook message: “You would be the next person. So be careful.”

Ananya no longer writes blogs and tries to stay indoors as much as possible, but he continues to articulate his views on social media to a closed community of like-minded readers.

“Anyone who has a critical view about religion is exposed,” he said, but added that he was determined not to be silenced. “I probably have reduced my frequency of writing but my nature of writing has not changed.”

Some have cast doubts over the contents of the list, saying it should not be taken seriously. “We still do not know a source for the list,” online activist Imran H Sarker told the Guardian, saying he believed it contained multiple names and pseudonyms for individual bloggers.

However, those bloggers featured on it say threats against them have increased since the first blogger victim – Avijit Roy, an American citizen of Bangladeshi origin – was murdered in a machete attack in Dhaka on 26 February.

“Whether the list is credible or not, when people from the list are dying, the threats cannot be taken lightly,” said Shubhajit Bhowmik, a politics and social affairs writer who is also named on the document. “The threats are so frequent and so many that we no longer can count them.”

PHOTO: Ananya Azad, who left his job as a newspaper columnist and stopped writing his blog. Photograph: AP

Though Bangladesh is an officially secular country, more than 90% of its 160 million-strong population are Muslim. Hefazat-e-Islam, a hardline Islamist group, publicly sought the execution of atheists who organised mass protests against the rise of political Islam in March 2013, soon after the list was presented. The group staged a huge counter-protest against the bloggers in May 2013 that left nearly 50 people dead.

Roy founded Mukto Mona, which describes itself as a portal that aims to “promote science, rationalism, secularism, freethinking, human rights, religious tolerance, and harmony”. Das also wrote for the blog, which Roy’s colleagues continue to publish.

Roy was murdered on his way home from a book fair in Dhaka in an attack that left his wife, Rafida Ahmed Bonna, badly injured.

“We were supposed to be going back home to have dinner with the family,” she told the BBC at the time. “I think I was holding his hand and we were just talking. I do not remember anything from that point until I was in some sort of vehicle and someone was carrying me. I remember I was soaked in blood.”

Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent claimed responsibility for Roy’s killing, and an Islamist was arrested for his murder. Two madrasa students were arrested for Rahman’s killing. No one has been charged over Das’s murder, but his brother has filed a criminal case saying he was killed by an “extremist fanatic group”.

This week police called for the government to ban the Ansarullah Bangla Team, an Islamist militant group they believe may be behind the three attacks. Members of the group have already been charged with the 2013 murder of blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider.

PHOTO: Tributes to murdered Bangladeshi bloggers at a protest meeting in Kolkata, India. Photograph: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images

However, Ananya and others on the list believe extremists continue to take advantage of a culture of impunity. And it is not only violence on the streets that the bloggers fear: anyone found guilty of publishing material that authorities deem to be false or defamatory faces a jail term of up to 14 years.

In 2013, atheist blogger Asif Mohiuddin was stabbed in the street by religious extremists. A month later, he was arrested and held in prison for making derogatory remarks about religion and his blog was banned.

Sushanta Das Gupta, who founded, is another on the list. The London-based Bangladeshi activist and writer used to visit his homeland five or six times every year but has not been for 18 months for fear of attacks. However, he is also concerned about being targeted while abroad.

“I could imagine there will be more attacks, not only in Bangladesh,” he said. “I have already informed London Met police … They provided me [with] a panic alarm which could be used in case I am in any danger.”

Though some of the bloggers on the list continue to publish in defiance of the threats against them, many now use pseudonyms. However, as Shubhajit pointed out, that offers little protection.

“Washiqur had no photo of himself on Facebook,” he said. “We had no idea about him until he was killed. Still, he became a prey to the fundamentalists … this shows that they know how to find us.”

The Guardian contacted the junior interior minister Asaduzzaman Khan, the secretary of the interior ministry, Mozammel Haque Khan, the chief of police, Shahidul Haque, and the chief of the detective branch, Monirul Islam. None responded to requests for comment.