Another week and another brutal murder takes place in Bangladesh. The latest victims of an assassination campaign allegedly by Islamist extremists were Xulhaz Mannan, editor of the country’s only gay magazine, and his friend Mahbub Tonoy, hacked to death by men posing as couriers, reports the Financial Times.
Their deaths came after those of 28-year-old Nazimuddin Samad, a secular student activist who featured on a 2013 hit list circulated by Islamist radicals, and Rezaul Karim Siddique, a university professor who was on his way to the bus stop — both also killed by machetes this month.
The victims’ only common trait was to be perceived by Sunni extremists as enemies of Islam in one of the world’s biggest Muslim nations.
While five secular bloggers were killed last year, those slaughtered also include foreigners – an Italian and a Japanese national – and followers of Hinduism, Christianity, Shia Islam, Sufism and Ahmadi Secretary Mannan, who was killed on Monday in a Dhaka apartment, was perhaps a double target because he also worked for the US Agency for International Development.
Many commentators link this human rights disaster to Bangladesh’s transformation under Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League from a rather dysfunctional but manageable democracy into an authoritarian state — one now under attack from violent jihadis. In a report on political conflict in Bangladesh, the International Crisis Group warns of a possible “democratic collapse.”
The first mistake by Hasina’s government was to yield to hardline Muslim views on the supposed horrors of atheism or homosexuality instead of standing up for pluralism and secularism. The second was the sustained assault by security forces and the judiciary on government opponents, including editors and liberal and Islamist politicians.
Officials depict the onslaught as a response to the violent campaign of strikes and boycotts waged by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its Jamaat-e-Islami allies around the last general election two years ago.
But the victimisation of the main opposition parties and neutral observers has reached levels extreme even by the standards of the country’s traditionally unpleasant politics, with mass arrests, extrajudicial killings and implausible prosecutions.
One editor is facing 79 — evidently co-ordinated — legal actions in courts around the country for sedition and defamation, including demands for the equivalent of $17bn in damages. Two others have been accused of involvement in an improbable plot to kidnap and kill Sajeeb Wazed Joy, Hasina’s son, in the US. Legislators are considering the Bangladesh Liberation War (Denial, Distortion, Opposition) Crime Law that would essentially ban free discussion of history by criminalising views that deviate from those of the Awami League.
William Milam, a former US ambassador to Islamabad and Dhaka, says he fears Bangladesh is now on a “frogmarch towards not only authoritarianism but really one-party dictatorship.” Hasina whose government has taken to denying that al-Qaeda or ISIS are active in Bangladesh, blamed the “BNP-Jamaat nexus” for the latest killings, calling them “secret and heinous murders to destabilise the country”. The truth is that the government faces a challenging task in fighting terrorists, who are usually local radicals impressed by international brands such as ISIS, but is making the job still harder by persecuting its legitimate opponents and driving them underground.
The ICG report says the government’s heavy-handed measures are damaging its own legitimacy and benefiting extremists. “There is no time to lose,” it concludes. “If mainstream dissent remains closed, more and more government opponents may come to view violence and violent groups as their only recourse.”
Hasina cannot say she has not been warned about the path down which she is leading Bangladesh and its 160 million people.