Following a string of brutal “machete” murders of Bangladeshi writers, all of whom had blogged about humanism, secularism, and atheist critiques of religion, a ground-breaking open letter today calls on the Bangladeshi government to stop “victim-blaming” the bloggers, and instead focus on catching the extremists who are murdering them.
The letter accuses authorities of “making matters worse” after the most recent murder, of blogger Niladri Chatterjee (pen name Niloy Neel) on August 7th. First, the Inspector General of Police condemned the killings, but went on to tell bloggers, "Do not cross the limit. Do not hurt anyone's religious belief", and suggested that more bloggers criticising religion and advocating humanism would be arrested under the country’s online communications laws. The sentiments were repeated by the Cabinet Committee for Law and Order, as well as the Home Minister, a stand which the open letter describes as state institutions engaging in “victim-blaming”. The police also said those named on new Islamist militant “hit lists”, including bloggers, poets and academics, should “lodge a police complaint” if they thought they were being “followed”, an approach summed up in the letter as a “grossly inadequate, highly negligent response to what is evidently a most serious and potentially fatal threat.”
What makes the letter so groundbreaking is the list of supporters. The signatories include many individual Bangladeshi atheist bloggers under threat, as well as artists, writers and academics, but also a roll-call of international atheist, humanist, and secularist bloggers (especially from the flourishing American online scene, such as PZ Myers, Hemant Mehta, Richard Carrier, Ophelia Benson). They’re joined by major freedom of expression campaign organisations (including Reporters Without Borders, Index on Censorship), as well as liberal religious groups (such as Muslims for Progressive Values, and Christian Solidarity Worldwide), Ex-Muslim “apostate” groups, and the leaders of numerous national Humanist associations under the umbrella of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU).
Ian Bushfield, Executive Director of the BC Humanist Association, one of the signatories of the letter, said,
“People are being hacked to death in their homes and on the street in Bangladesh for saying they don’t believe in god. And yet the Bangladeshi police and Government’s response has been to effectively call for Humanism and atheism to be further criminalized. As fellow freethinkers and supporters of free expression, the BC Humanists stand in solidarity with the bloggers, poets, and academics in Bangladesh. Canada has a long history of standing up for human rights and freedom around the world, it’s time our Government take a stand in support of free speech and the freedom not to believe.”
The letter was organised by the IHEU, alongside a network of Bangladeshi bloggers and activists.
President of the IHEU Andrew Copson said,
“As each of these bloggers, activists, and humanists has been cut down, there has been a tremendous outpouring of grief not just in Bangladesh but among the humanist and human rights community globally. The grief is followed by a frustration that intensifies each time, as the failures of the authorities begin to amount to victim-blaming and a sort of collective harassment.
“We wanted to show something of that collective solidarity and anguish in this open letter. From threatened Bangladeshi bloggers, to some of the leading international civil society organisations for freedom of expression; from students at Dhaka University, to established academics all over the world; lone activists, humanist associations, Muslims, Ex-Muslims, all the signatories are presented shoulder to shoulder, in a single column, to emphasise that we are equal and united in this cause. The government of Bangladesh must recognise that those who speak their minds on political Islamism, who express their humanist values, who defend the constitutionally secular democracy of Bangladesh, have every right to do so, and they have friends all over the world who want to see that right respected and upheld.”
Signatories better known in Bangladesh include Sara Hosain, the high-profile barrister who defended four bloggers arrested in 2013 for ‘hurting religious sentiments’, Ajoy Roy a leading light of humanism in Bangladesh and the father of science writer Avijit Roy who was killed in February 2015, and Rafida Bonya Ahmed, Avijit Roy’s widow, a writer herself and a moderator of the Mukto-Mona blogging platform that Avijit Roy founded.
The letter makes four demands of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and President Abdul Hamid: for better security of those under threat, to “instruct the police to find the killers, not to harass or blame the victims”, for political isolation of their own party members who are calling for “death penalties” against atheist bloggers, and for repeal of those sections of the penal code which are described as enacting “quasi-blasphemy” laws for restricting free expression on religion.
Following news of three new arrests (Tuesday), in connection with the murders of Avijit Roy and Ananta Bijoy Das earlier this year, including one suspect with dual British and Bangladeshi citizenship, the IHEU has urged caution, noting that despite several previous arrests no one has yet been convicted, or even tried, for any of the blogger murders. IHEU argues that "The burden is on the Bangladeshi authorities to demonstrate, fairly and lawfully, that any of these arrests is credible and justiciable."