|Niloy Neel concealed his true identity on Facebook. [Source: bdnews24.com]|
Four of the 84 individuals on a list of Bangladeshi “atheist bloggers”—Neel, along with Avijit Roy, Oyasiqur Rahman Babu and Ananta Bijoy Das—have been brutally murdered in 2015.
The list dates back to 2013, the year the Bangladeshi government amended the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act to legalize warrantless arrests and increase maximum prison sentences to 14 years. Given the Act's Section 57, which called for punishment for information that "causes to deteriorate or creates possibility to deteriorate law and order, prejudice the image of the State or person or causes to hurt or may hurt religious belief or instigate against any person or organization," the amendment invited free expression to be countered with stiff consequences.
At the time, established Islamic groups collected and submitted the 84 names to the Bangladeshi government, asking for the bloggers’ arrests. The list, ignored by the government, instead fell into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists, who on Friday exhibited their growing willingness to take matters into their own hands.
Neel had suspected himself to be a target and asked the police for protection, who only told him to leave the country. He stayed in Bangladesh and took what precautions he could: in addition to using a penname, he removed photos and changed his location on Facebook. Regardless, the blogger was attacked in his own home, proving just how little protection or privacy he had.
The international community has responded with an outpouring of criticism for Bangladesh’s lack of responsibility in protecting its citizens’ rights to expression and to life:
United Nations Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression, David Kaye, and on extrajudicial executions, Christof Heyns, condemned the murder: "The violent killing of another critical voice in Bangladesh shows that serious threats to freedom of expression persist in the country. The organized targeting of critical voices aims at promoting a culture of silence and fear, and affects the society as a whole. The Bangladeshi authorities must not only continue to strongly condemn these horrendous acts against freedom of expression, but should also ensure that their words are followed by more effective efforts to ensure greater accountability and prevent this kind of violence."
The Committee to Protect Journalists’ Sumit Galhotra asked, “How many more bloggers must be murdered before the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina acts decisively to stem violence and impunity?”
Official Bangladeshi rhetoric, however, has done little to address this question. Inspector General of Police AKM Shahidul Hoque recently defended the law: “We need to remember that hurting religious sentiments is a crime according to our law. Those who are free thinkers and writers, I will request them, please make sure that we don’t cross the line. Anything that may hurt anyone’s religious sentiments or beliefs should not be written.”
With four men dead in six months, Hoque needs to ask the law to change, not the bloggers to silence themselves. It is 2013’s amendment to the ICT Act that created the notion that individuals should be punished harshly for their ideas, and in turn manifested a list of people to target. It is time for the Bangladeshi government to take responsibility for the toxic environment it has created.
In June, there were reported plans to amend the ICT Act by the end of 2015. Bangladesh cannot wait that long.