Bangladesh Court Condemns 6 Militants to Death in Killings of Gay Rights Activists

Sharif Khiam
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Bangladesh Court Condemns 6 Militants to Death in Killings of Gay Rights Activists Police escort militants (wearing helmets) from a group affiliated with al-Qaeda outside a Dhaka courtroom after they were convicted and sentenced to death for the murders of two gay rights activists five years ago, Aug. 31, 2021.
[Sharif Khiam/BenarNews]

A Dhaka court sentenced a half-dozen members of an Islamic militant group to death Tuesday for killing two gay-rights activists with machetes in a Dhaka apartment five years ago.

Some of the defendants smiled after Judge Mojibur Rahman of the Anti-Terrorism Special Tribunal convicted and condemned six of the eight accused men to death row for the double-murder of Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy in April 2016. Two of the suspects were acquitted.

“Analysis of the evidence proves that the accused decided to assassinate Xulhaz Mannan and Khandaker Mahbub Rabbi Tanmoy alias Tonoy, for holding rallies with homosexuals to establish their rights in society,” Rahman said in the verdict, a copy of which BenarNews obtained.

The killings of the gay-rights activists were part of a spate of machete-murders that targeted secular intellectuals and bloggers in Bangladesh – mostly from 2015 to 2016 – and were carried out by Ansar al-Islam, a militant group affiliated with al-Qaeda, and which was also known as Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT).

“If the accused survives, other members of Ansar al-Islam will be encouraged to commit the same crime,” the judge ruled. “So, these accused cannot get any sympathy. If the six accused are sentenced to death, justice will be ensured.”

The six militants who were convicted included former Maj. Syed Ziaul Haq (also known as Major Zia) and Akram Hossain – who are fugitives – as well as Mozammel Hossain (alias Saimon), Arafat Rahman, Sheikh Abdullah and Asadullah.

Four of the eight accused were tried in absentia because they were on the run. Two of the four were acquitted, while the other pair had already been condemned to the gallows for other cases involving similar killings.

The court also fined the six convicts 50,000 taka (U.S. $587). The accused have the right to appeal the verdict in the High Court, and their lawyer said they would appeal.

After the verdict came down, BenarNews contacted a friend of the two murdered men who edits Roopbaan, Bangladesh’s first magazine that caters to the country’s LGBTQ community.

The ruling “may ease my pain a little bit, for the moment, emotionally and personally,” said Rasel Ahmed.

But he also noted that, immediately after the verdict, the state prosecutor spoke to reporters, “reiterating that homosexuality is illegal in Bangladesh, implying that Xulhaz and Tonoy were criminals under the Bangladesh penal code, which is absurd.”

“They were not criminals. They were talented people, they were law-abiding citizens, they were contributing for the betterment of the country,” Ahmed told BenarNews.

“I really see this as a failed opportunity from the state to recognize that ... LGBTQ people, the gay and lesbian people in Bangladesh, they have a right to live peacefully, and organize peacefully, as Bangladeshi law-abiding citizens, constitutionally,” said Ahmed, who now lives outside Bangladesh.

“[T]hey should not be penalized, and they should not be criminalized. So I don’t know if this verdict has served any justice to my fallen friends or the LGBTQ community,” he added.

Mahfuzur Rahman Khan, Tonoy’s uncle, said he hoped that the High Court would uphold Tuesday’s verdict, but added it was imperative that Haq, the former army officer, be caught.

“The main culprit remains out of reach,” Khan told BenarNews. “If Zia cannot be caught, such activities can never be stopped. It is unfortunate that all the intelligence agencies of the state have not been able to trace his whereabouts for so many years

The brutal killings on the night of April 25, 2016, were carried out by militants who infiltrated Mannan’s apartment building by posing as delivery men.

Mannan worked at the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka for nine years and later for the Bangladesh office of the United States Agency for International Development, where he helped lead programs to promote human rights. He also edited Bangladesh’s first LGBT magazine. Tonoy was a theater artist.

Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was among those who marked the fifth anniversary of the killings of Mannan and Tonoy.

“Xulhaz’s selfless dedication to advancing the principles of diversity, acceptance and inclusion exemplified the best of Bangladesh,” America’s top diplomat said in a statement on April 25.


Xulhaz Mannan, who was murdered by Islamic militants five years ago, attends a Bengali New Year rally organized by an LGBTQ group in Dhaka, April 14, 2014. [AFP]

Haq, the former major, is said to have been the mastermind behind the killings of the gay rights activists and others.

Officials say he has been on the run since he was kicked out of the army over accusations that he was involved in a failed coup against the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in 2011.

“The Dhaka Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime unit as well as various police units across the country are continuing their efforts to arrest Zia,” DMP Deputy Commissioner (Media and Public Relations) Md. Faruk Hossain told BenarNews on Tuesday.

Police officials could not say how many cases there are against him though Haq is said to have been involved nine “targeted killings” between 2013 and 2016.

‘They despise this world’

As they were leaving the Dhaka courtroom after the judge read out his verdict, the four condemned militants were seen smiling and ridiculing journalists, who were taking their photographs or recording videos.

The militants saw their punishment as a “reward,” according to Prof. Muhammad Omar Farooq, a criminology expert.

“Militants are fanatical or ideologically motivated to join militancy, and they [the convicts] are enjoying the situation,” Farooq, a lecturer at the Maulana Bhasani University of Science and Technology, told BenarNews.

“They despise this world and think that they will go to the hereafter with the dignity of martyrs and will live in paradise. That’s how they became motivated.”


Asadullah, a militant from Ansar al-Islam (in helmet), grins as he leaves the courthouse where a judge sentenced him to death for participating in the killing of two gay-rights activists, Aug. 31, 2021. [Sharif Khiam /BenarNews]

Barrister Arafat Hossain Khan, a Supreme Court lawyer, told BenarNews, that those who believe in militancy “do not really care about the country’s traditional justice system.” 

The fact that the convicts were laughing showed that they did not regret the killings, Public Prosecutor Abdullah Abu said.

“We noticed that even after hearing this verdict, there was no change in their minds. They were laughing. There is no remorse,” Abu told BenarNews.

“It is obvious how horrible they are by their behavior."


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