Recently, Bangladesh has faced a spate of targeted killings of bloggers, secular activists, publishers, foreigners and members of religious minorities by so-called religious militants or extremists.
Following the killings, by giving a false and misleading interpretation of religion, these violent extremists and terrorists are trying to justify their misdeeds too. In line with its 'zero-tolerance' policy towards terrorism, the Awami League government led by Honorable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been giving its utmost attention to combating these elements hell-bent on causing bloodshed and divisiveness.
Nonetheless, some are trying to attribute these killings on the supposed 'inaction' on part of the government. A generally inaccurate picture is being portrayed that the government is sitting idle and not doing enough. Some are erroenously stating that the Awami League goverbment, in particular HPM Sheikh Hasina, has somehow 'justified' these killings by commenting on freedom of expression vis-a-vis freedom of religion. Most surprisingly, those with inadequate knowledge and information on contemporary and historical developments in Bangladesh, are trying to make the point that these killings are a result of the 'shrinking' role of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in the political arena.
This special article seeks to clarify three points: First, the government led by HPM Sheikh Hasina has not been sitting idle in the face of the killings. It has been doing its best as regards law enforcement which has already resulted in significant progress in the investigation and/or trial of the killers in the various cases; Second, HPM Sheikh Hasina has been unequivocal in her condemnation of the violence and her resolve to bring the killers to account; and Last, there is no comparison as regards counter terrorism records of Awami League and BNP. What happened during the 2001-06 BNP-Jamaat regime was state sponsored terrorism, whereas now what we are dealing with is targeted killings by home-grown and/or foreign inspired militant groups seeking to cause maximum publicity by picking on unguarded soft targets.
Significant Progress in Investigation and/or Trials
The last three such killings included the murder of a Hindu tailor named Nikhil Chandra Joardar in Gopalpur, Tangail. Police have already detained three people, including a local Jamaat leader, for questioning them over the killing. Another recent killing was that of the USAID employee Xulhaz Mannan along with his activist friend Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy. The Home Minister of Bangladesh has informed the media that the law enforcement agents have identified three suspects in connection with these murders. As for the killing of Professor Rezaul Karim Siddique of Rajshahi University, a student of the same university and two others, namely a Madrasa teacher and an Imam, have been arrested by police for questioning and further investigation.
Progress is also being made by the law enforcers as regards the previous killings. The law-enforcement agencies have detected clues and unearthed facts behind most of the killings and militant attacks conducted over bloggers and liberals in the country. Police have already detected facts and clues of 17 out of 21 such incidents committed since 2013. Among the 11 cases detected in Dhaka, police have already submitted charge-sheets in 5 cases. Judgment in one of those cases has already been pronounced by the court. For the murder of blogger Rajib Hyder, the court gave punishment to 8 people, including capital punishment to 2 persons.
Charge sheets have been submitted against the accused for cases of attempt to murder blogger Asif Mohiuddin, killings of Wasiqur Rahman Babu and Khijir Khan and bomb attack on Hosney Dalan. Investigations have been successfully concluded in the cases of the killings of Bangladesh-born US citizen Avijit Roy, Niladri Chaterjee Nely, Assistant Police Inspector (ASI) Mohammad Ibrahim, publisher Arefin Faisal Dipon and the case of attempt to murder of publisher Tutul at Mohammadpur. Charge-sheet for the murder of Avijit roy will be be submitted to court soon after Bangladeshi law enforcers obtain the report of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Investigation into the murder of Ananta Bijoy is also at the final stage. Several high profile arrests have been made in a number of cases, including 6 in Niladri murder case, 8 in Avijit killing case, 5 in Ananta murder case and 3 others in Babu murder case.
Overall Progress: In total, 37 murders took place in Bangladesh from 2013 onwards in the hands of terrorist/militant organizations. Police have solved the mysteries of 33 of these cases. Of these cases, 25 were committed by Jamaatul Mujaheedin Bangladesh (JMB), 8 were committed by Ansarullah Bangla Team and the rest were committed by other militant groups. One of these cases has already been heard by court, resulting in conviction and sentence. Charge-sheets (indictments) have been submitted for 6 cases. 144 accused have been arrested so far in the 37 cases. 49 of these accused have already given confessional statements to Magistrates under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure 1898.
Jamaat-Shibir Involvement Found: Police also found credible evidence of the involvement of Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), so-called student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, and its activists as well as other ultra fanatic militant outfits in such crimes. According to the police, their involvement has been found in the killing of bloggers as well as their instigations for other militants to commit the heinous crimes in a planned way in order to destabilize the country and the government. A good number of arrestees involved in the killings were found to be former and incumbent members of Shibir, many of them have direct links to the banned militant outfit, Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT). Detained Shibir leaders Mortuza Sabbir Faisal and Tariqul Islam claimed responsibility for the murder of blogger Niladri Chatterjee Niloy after opening a Facebook account under the name of "Ansar Al Islam'.
HPM Sheikh Hasina's Stance on Killings
Time and time again, HPM Sheikh Hasina has reiterated her government's "zero tolerance" approach to combating terrorism and militancy. Her personal conviction in this regard, and the successes achieved by her administration, has been lauded not only by the USA, but most developed nations and such international bodies as the UN. This has been possible due to a number of measures being implemented by the Sheikh Hasina led Awami League since it assumed power in 2009.
The recent report by the US State Department 2015 (Country Reports on Terrorism) clearly vindicated the Awami League government's role and successes to counter terrorism and violent extremism and HPM Sheikh Hasina's leadership in this regard. Additionally, it would be a shame if we forget that it is HPM Sheikh Hasina, who is the biggest target for terrorists in Bangladesh owing to her ideological and political stance against extremism and terrorism. So far, 19 attempts have been made on her life.
It is therefore, highly unfortunate that many in the media are carrying misleading reports on the comments made by HPM Sheikh Hasina regarding freedom of expression vis-a-vis offending peoples' religious sentiments. The picture is being portrayed by some that her comments somehow exonerate the killers and justify the killings. This cannot be further from the truth. In a press conference held at Ganobhaban, Dhaka on 8 November 2015, HPM Sheikh Hasina gave a clear explanation of what she thinks should be the limits of free speech when it came to criticizing religion. The key parts from her speech (translated from Bangla) are reproduced below for giving a clear exposition of her words as well as the context in which they were uttered:
"As far as writings are concerned, I would like to say this: We believe in secular democracy. You know that by amending the constitution, we have guaranteed freedom of religion for people of all religions. But I have a religion. I believe in Allah, and believe in the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). I believe in my faith. If someone writes distortions about my faith, or resorts to obscenity, that will hurt my sentiments as well as yours. This is equally true for Hindus and Christians. If you write something offensive about their religions, it will hurt them too. Therefore, I want there to be no writings which hurt people's religious sentiments. Don't say anything which will hurt the religious sentiments of others. If you genuinely believe in secularism, then you will respect others' religions just like you respect your own.
Secularism does not mean going against religion. If someone wants to be an atheist, and does not want to follow any religion, that is their prerogative. He or she is entitled to remain as they are, but they should not hurt the religious sentiments of others. This is a humane quality. Ridiculing faith of others is not a humane quality. That is simply gratifying an unnatural lust. We need to stop that. That is what we have been saying. No one has been told to stop writing. Writing shall continue. No one has been warned about writing.
We have only asked that people refrain from hurting each other's sentiments. I don't know. I have a habit of talking frankly. I say what comes to my mind. I say what I perceive. I respect all religions. I have been everywhere: mosques, temples, churches and pagodas. I have been to all these places and experienced all faiths. But I observe my faith. I pray regularly, without reciting the Quran every morning, I don't start my day. This is how it has always been for me. I respect all other religions equally. This is because in such matters, we can't know who holds what. Only Allah can judge. This is what we've been saying and hence, should not be taken otherwise."
As is apparent from a simple reading of the comments, there is nothing even implicit to justify violence or killing in the name of religion. As the Prime Minister of a Muslim majority nation, and the Muslim head of a secular party, Sheikh Hasina simply expressed her views on where the limits of free speech should be drawn. This cannot be equated with victim blaming or encouraging extremist behaviors. On the contrary, HPM Sheikh Hasina has, on a number of occasions, and especially following any killing by extremist (whether at home or abroad), unequivocally condemned the actions of the killers and vowed to bring them to justice of the law.
For instance, following the latest killings of Xulhaz and Tonoy, HPM Sheikh Hasina stated: "There is no place for terrorism in the country and no terrorist would be allowed to use Bangladesh's soil...we want to establish Bangladesh as a peaceful nation in the world". This is not a one-off comment and the HPM has made similar statements after each and every incident of extremist killing in Bangladesh as well as the terrorist attacks abroad. Expressing shock and condemnation at the terrorist attacks in Paris based offices of satirical magazine 'Charlie Hebdo', HPM Sheikh Hasina pledged to work closely together with France to rid the world of the menace of terrorism and violent extremism.
Talking to the BBC in July 2015, HPM Sheikh Hasina commented on blogger killings: "Immediately we arrested the killers and brought them to book. We are taking care of this as we won't allow any kind of terrorist activities to take place in this country.” In August of the same year, the Premier reiterated that the killers of bloggers would be brought to justice and expressed her government's firm stance about delivering exemplary punishment to the persons responsible for homicide in the name of religion. She commented on the nature of the state in that "Bangladesh is a secular country where people of all religious belief and faith enjoy constitutional guarantee to live with their rights". In October, following the killings of two foreigners, the HPM reaffirmed that “There will be no place for terrorists and militants in Bangladesh… We’ll surely find out the killers ... and bring them under the purview of law".
One particular comment of the HPM, which has been used to mislead people on her views come from the HPM's comments to the press on 14 April, 2016, where she expressed her frustration as to whether the government should 'shoulder' the blame if any writings meant to offend religious sentiments results in any untoward situation. However, those who are using this quote to make the point that the Premier resorted to victim blaming or somehow tried to justify the killings of bloggers and publishers, are misleading others as these were not her complete words. After her comments on writings which offend religious sentiments, the HPM made it very clear that no one has the right to take the law into their own hands and seek vengeance for written words, notwithstanding how offending they might be. She suggested that even Islam, the religion which these killers are claiming to avenge on behalf of, does not permit such killings.
State Sponsored Terrorism Vs Targeted Killings
In the guise of having a discussion on terrorism and recent targeted killings in Bangladesh, many are committing the grave error of comparing the records of Awami League and BNP as regards combating terrorism, militancy and violent extremism. Whereas in reality, what happened during the 2001-06 BNP-Jamaat was state sponsored terrorism when the country witnessed large number of fatalities and casualties owing to coordinated attacks by terrorists (often aided and abetted by state and government mechanisms), mostly through bombs. Details of some of the major incidents from that period are provided below:
- 2001-03: On 20 January 2001, six persons were killed and approximately 50 others injured in two separate bomb blasts in Dhaka. On 14 April 2001, 8 persons were killed in a bomb explosion set off by terrorists at a Bengali New Year cultural function in Dhaka. On 3 June 2001, 10 persons were killed and 25 others injured in a bomb blast at a catholic mission church at Baniachar, Gopalganj District. On 15 June, 2001, 21 persons were killed and over 100 injured when Awami League's party office was bombed in Narayanganj. On 25 September 2001, 4 persons were killed in bomb attack on Awami Legaue election meeting at Shullaj, Shunamganj.
On 7 December, 2002, 18 persons were killed and approximately 300 others injured in serial bomb blasts at four cinema halls in and around Mymensingh District. On 17 January, 2003, at least 8 persons were killed and eight more injured in a bomb blast at a carnival in Dariapur village of Tangail District, 70km north of the capital Dhaka.
- 2005: On 27 January, Former Finance Minister, Shah AMS Kibria, and four other AL activists are killed and at least 70 persons sustain injuries during a grenade attack on an AL rally at Boidder Bazaar in the Habiganj District. On 14 November, a cadre of Jamaatul Mujaheedin Bangladesh (JMB) belonging to the suicide squad of the outfit explodes a bomb killing two senior assistant judges and wounding three people in the District headquarter of Jhalakathi. On 17 August JMB carried out a series bomb attacks carried nationwide, which left 2 people killed and 100 others injured. JMB carried out the heinous attacks by blasting some 449 bomb in 63 districts simultaneously, except Munshiganj district.
On 29 November, 9 people, including 2 lawyers and a police constable, were killed and 78 persons injured in two suicide bomb attacks by the JMB cadres in the Chittagong and Gazipur court premises. On 8 December, 6 persons were killed and 46 injured by a suicide bomber of the JMB in front of the office of the Udichi, cultural wing of the Communist Party of Bangladesh, in the Netrakona district.
- 2006: On 21 August, a series of grenade attacks on the then Leader of the Opposition Sheikh Hasina's rally at Bangabandhu Avenue in Dhaka left at least 19 people dead and 200 others injured. Investigation and testimonies of witnesses have since confirmed that the attack was carried out by the banned militant group Harkat Ul Jihad (HuJI) with assistance from the top brass of BNP-Jamaat government during that time.
It should be noted that no such major terrorist act took place in the soil of Bangladesh under the watch of HPM Sheikh Hasina led Awami League government since 2009. A series of legal, administrative, law enforcement and social measures have more or less broken the backbone of the known terrorist/militant outfits to carry out any large scale terrorist or subversive activities. Unsurprisingly therefore, according to Gallup's Global Law and Order Report 2015, Bangladesh was assessed as being one of the safest countries on earth. As a result, now these militant outfits are now resorting to systematic target killings of a wide range of soft targets, which is very difficult to identify and prevent before the crime takes place.
BNP-Jamaat Involvement: The difference between the terrorism of BNP-Jamaat era and the current targeted killings in Bangladesh is the complicity of state and government mechanisms in acts of terror. There are many instances where BNP-Jamaat leaders and allies have been found to be directly and/or indirectly supporting groups which can only be described as 'radical', 'fundamentalist', 'militant' and outright violently 'extremist'.
The fact that Jamaat E Islami Bangladesh maintains close connections with the banned militant outfit JMB has been mentioned by the media and defence analysts for quite some time now. Police learned about Jamaat's alleged link with JMB from detained Chief of the outfit Saidur Rahman alias Zafar. Saidur told interrogators that there are at least 25 Jamaat ‘Rokons’ [highest position holders in Jamaat’s primary level] who are also concurrently holding posts in JMB (Probe focuses on Jamaat’s JMB Links”, the Daily Star, July 4, 2010).
Thus, for all practical purposes, there is no difference between Jamaat and JMB. However, Islami Chatra Shibir, which is supposedly the “student” wing of Jamaat, is not far behind, with many JMB activists having an active past with Shibir. One of the three convicted militants, snatched away from law enforcers in February 2014, himself admitted to a private TV channel “Shomoy TV” in 2003 his involvement with Shibir before joining JMB. He even worked for a Jamaat candidate in 2001 election.
BNP’s connections with global terror groups, expressly or by implications, are also nothing new. One of the key organisers of BNP’s ally Hefazate Islam is Maulana Habibur Rahman (aka Bulbuli Hujur), an Afghan veteran Mujaheedin and an open advocate for “Taliban-style” rule in Bangladesh (Islami Biplob”, Special Bulletin, 20 August, 1998). Previously he was a leader of the (now banned) Islamist militant organization Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami (“Huji”) Bangladesh. He is reported to have travelled to Afghanistan via Pakistan in 1998, where he visited some Taliban militant camps and also met al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden (Julfikar Ali Manik, “Target Taliban Rule: Key organiser of Hefajat long march Habibur working for an Afghan-style Bangladesh”, the Daily Star, 7 April 2013).
Top brass of Huji also included Shaikhul Hadith Allama Azizul Haq, Chief of a faction of Islami Oikya Jote, an alliance partner of BNP during the 2001-2006 tenure. Ataur Rahman Khan, a former BNP legislator (1991-1996) from Kishoreganj-3 constituency, also held top leadership position with Huji.
According to media reports, Siddiqul Islam (aka “Bangla Bhai”), former Afghan Mujaheedin of the 80s and dreaded commander of JMB was so close with Tarique Rahman that he used to address him as “Mama” (Uncle in Bangla) openly while talking over phone with the BNP Senior Vice Chairman. Reports also suggest that in 2005, Tarique Rahman helped brokered a deal for the release of dreaded militant Khamaru, one of the closest associates of Bangla Bhai, leaving the Home Ministry officials embarrassed (Daily Janakantha, 25 February, 2014). It is said that Ruhul Kuddus Dulu (Deputy Minister) and Aminul Hoque (Minister) acted as the go between for the communication of messages between Bangla Bhai and Tarique Rahman, and all organizational and militant activities had to approved by “Mama” expressly or impliedly.
A Time Magazine report (Alex Perry, Deadly Cargo, Time, 14 October 2002) highlighted various favours international terrorists belonging to the Taliban and Al Qaeda received from the then BNP Jamaat led government of Bangladesh. It has been said that Ayman Al Zawahiri himself visited Bangladesh in March 2002 and stayed till the summer of that year when he crossed over the eastern border into Burma with Rohingya rebels.
The same Time report also gave harrowing details about how a ship named MV Mecca carried about 150 heavily armed Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives in the cover of the dark to the port city of Chittagong, Bangladesh on the early hours of 21st December 2001. Even before that on 1 June 2001, the same ship helped carry 50 more AL Qaeda operatives from Karachi to Chittagong who had completed training in bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan. It is clear that the then government used its intelligence agencies, viz. DGFI, to help ease the difficulties associated with such clandestine trips.
BNP and 21 August Grenade Attacks: 24 Awami League leaders and activists (including wife of late President Zillur Rahman, Ivy Rahman), were killed and more than 300 were injured when several military grade grenades were hurled at an Awami League rally at Bangabandhu Avenue in Dhaka on August 21, 2004. The main accused for one of the bloodiest political massacres in Bangladeshi history, Harkat Ul Jihad (Huji) Chief Mufti Abdul Hannad told investigators that he and his associates were promised safe passage out of the country by Tarique Rahman after the mass assassination of all top Awami League leaders (“Tarique promised attackers safe exit: Witness tells court”, the Daily Star, May 28, 2012). In fact, the planning stages of the attacks were conducted at Hawa Bhaban, the Gulshan office of BNP, which became notorious for, and synonymous to, Tarique’s corruption during 2001-07. The objective was simple: Kill the top leadership of Bangladesh Awami League, so that no political opponents could mount an effective opposition to Tarique’s future vision of Bangladesh (“Govt bigwigs behind August 21 Grenade Attack: A test for investigators”, the Daily Star, August 18, 2012).
BNP and Ten Trucks Arms Haul: The Chittagong 10 trucks arms haul case refers to the biggest seizure of illegal weapons and ammunitions being smuggled through Bangladesh for use by Indian separatists, in April of 2004. After ten years of investigation and proceedings, on 30 January 2014, the Chittagong Metropolitan Special Tribunal pronounced verdict and sentence in the two cases filed in this connection.
The prosecution’s arguments and evidence, deposition and cross examination of high ranking government officials and witnesses, confessional statements of the accused and observations of the presiding judge make it clear that several high ups of the erstwhile (2001-06) BNP Jamaat government had been actively involved in the smuggling of these arms and ammunitions. Officials of two intelligence agencies, NSI and DGFI were instructed by the then State Minister for Home Lutfuzzaman Khan Babor to assist in the venture going “smoothly” for the traffickers. Babor was in turn instructed by Tarique Rahman (“Khaleda, Tarique involved in 10-truck arms haul: AL”, UNB Connect, February 3, 2014).
As is apparent from the discussion above, the Awami League government is doing all it can, both legally and socially, to combat the threat posed by violent extremists and terrorists in the form of targeted killings. HPM Sheikh Hasina is pledge bound to the people of Bangladesh to continue her zero tolerance policy towards combating terrorism and militancy and bring all the perpetrators of the recent target killings to justice. Awami League is not in the same league as BNP-Jamaat as regards terrorism, as BNP-Jamaat have been some of the principal backers of such acts whereas Awami League, including its President Sheikh Hasina, are some of the most wanted targets for these extremists due to their ideological and policy stance.