Bangladesh: How long will impunity rule?

“The culture of impunity can’t go on or violence will increase.” – Ajoy Roy

The words of Ajoy Roy, the frail father of the late Avijit Roy hit us hard. We listened in silence as he shared his despair and disappointment at the lack of judicial process following the murder of his son in 2015. The murder of Avijit Roy, a blogger, made international news and became a case representative of the situation facing not just bloggers but journalists, lawyers, religious leaders and religious minorities in Bangladesh; these members of Bangladesh’s civil society are vulnerable to threats, harassment and attacks.

On the evening of 26 February 2015, Avijit Roy was brutally murdered while he and his wife, Bonya, were returning home following the Ekushey Book Fair in Dhaka. Ajoy became visibly agitated as he expressed his conviction that ‘The government must take preventative action’ explaining that, thus far, ‘their action has been relatively ineffective.’ A cry for justice, Ajoy’s plea was clear: neither the government of Bangladesh nor the international community can stay quiet any longer, or they risk condoning the violence through inaction.

“A cry for justice, Ajoy’s plea was clear: neither the government of Bangladesh nor the international community can stay quiet any longer, or they risk condoning the violence through inaction.”

The government’s intense crackdown on extremist activity in June 2016 brought a distinct change in the government’s activities in response to the killings in Bangladesh. While the exact figures remain unclear it appears at least 10,000 arrests were made throughout the country as Sheikh Hasina attempted to send out a clear new message: ‘our government has taken the decision to show zero-tolerance against militancy and terrorism. In no way shall we allow these militants and terrorists.’ These arrests signalled an encouraging shift in the government’s attitude towards the rise of extremist violence in Bangladesh, but confidence will only be restored when these arrests become charges and subsequently, successful prosecutions.

The vulnerability of Bangladesh’s blogging community

The lack of faith in the national justice system was unfortunately a recurring theme in our conversations with civil society and members of minority groups alike. The dejection and anguish so clear in Ajoy’s message was echoed by Suresh, a prominent blogger and journalist.* Suresh recounted a compelling testimony of insecurity and fear, with his days in the office spent shut behind double locked doors never knowing when his time might come to face the fanatics. Despondent and pessimistic about the continuing violence, Suresh revealed his hopelessness: ‘If we were killed there would be no justice.’ Suresh shared with us his passion for human rights and desire to publicise gender-based violence that goes largely unreported in Bangladesh. Suresh and his wife Anika* run a magazine and online news portal voicing sensitive issues, which has come to the attention of extremists and made them vulnerable to attack. After Suresh received multiple threats to his life through various means including Facebook, email and text message, the police provided him with 24-hour protection. Sadly, instead of reassuring him, Suresh found the police presence more unnerving as it brought greater public attention.

The deteriorating situation for religious minorities

Leaving Suresh and his wife in their office, we turned to a meeting with a prominent Christian leader whose reflections on the current situation were consistent with the picture that we were beginning to build. John* marked December 2015 as a particular turning point as he explained the deteriorating climate for religious leaders, specifically those involved in evangelical work over the past few years in Bangladesh. As John spoke of his ongoing evangelic ministry it became clear that the outbreaks of targeted violence were engendering self-censorship and a growing climate of fear amongst Christian communities. John told us of the regular and aggressive threats he and his community of pastors receive from groups claiming association with Daesh (Islamic State). Although Sheikh Hasina and her government continue to deny the presence of Daesh (Islamic State) in Bangladesh, it is becoming increasing clear that an extremist ideology has taken root and has shaken the country from the bottom up. From Christian pastors afraid to leave their homes in rural Rangpur, to peaceful Buddhist communities hiding way after an elderly monk was hacked to death, the sense of fear was palpable.

There was an overwhelming sentiment that the perpetrators of religiously motivated violence are gaining a foothold, enabled by a failure of judicial process which fosters a culture of impunity and renders minority groups more vulnerable than ever.

The significance of pro-active justice

It is absolutely crucial therefore, that the Bangladeshi government is able to dispel the sense of disillusion amongst the population by ensuring the killers of these attacks are brought to justice, taking steps to protect citizens and reassure vulnerable minorities. Last year’s long overdue announcement of a nationwide operation against the militants and terrorists provided a first step in this process, but what is needed is a stronger, united counter-narrative that promotes freedom and tolerance in a country whose constitution is founded upon such principles.

* Name changed for security reasons

By CSW’s Bangladesh Advocacy Officer