A Bangladeshi human rights lawyer on Wednesday said he sought police protection after complaining about death threats received for writing about and advocating for his country’s LGBT community.
Shahanur Islam Saikot said unidentified men, whom he suspected were militants, repeatedly threatened him over the phone, with the latest two calls made on Nov. 9. The death threats, including ones sent on Facebook, began in October.
“On Oct. 19 and 23, some unidentified callers threatened to kill me if I did not stop writing in favor of the LGBT people in Bangladesh. They tagged me as an atheist and reminded me of dire consequences,” Saikot, a blogger and 2010 fellow of Switzerland-based rights group JusticeMakers, told BenarNews.
The South Asian nation is where Muslim extremists carried out a spate of grisly killings targeting secular writers, intellectuals and LGBT activists in 2015 and 2016, according to Bangladeshi police.
“I have been getting repeated threats on Facebook where I share my story in favor of the LGBT community,” he said. “Who would threaten me on this issue other than the militants? The militants are behind the threats.”
Homosexual acts are outlawed in Saikot’s Muslim-majority country. Defendants can be sentenced to life in prison if found guilty of sodomy, but the law is not seriously enforced, according to a 2016 U.S. State Department country report on human rights in Bangladesh.
Saikot said he filed a complaint with the police on Oct. 27 in northern Naogaon district, where he was when he received one of the threats over his phone.
In his complaint, a copy of which was obtained by BenarNews, Saikot said the caller cursed him and told him to stop writing blogs perceived as favoring the LGBT community, whose initials stand for “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.”
“Otherwise, you would be sent to the other world to stop the writing completely,” the caller said, according to Saikot.
Gay activists slain
Police said they were trying to track down suspects, but acknowledged the difficulty that investigators faced because they lacked proper technology needed to trace incoming calls.
“We have yet to trace the people behind the threats. The numbers used for issuing threats are not local,” Himel Roy, an additional superintendent at the Naogaon Police, told BenarNews. He said he would refer the case to the police in Dhaka, the nation’s capital.
Saikot expressed fears for his safety two days after a U.S.-based group, which monitors freedom of expression, underscored that internet freedom had declined in Bangladesh, citing a recent surge in the number of fatal attacks by religious extremists.
Freedom House emphasized that religious extremists claimed responsibility for the April 2016 killing of Xulhaz Mannan, the founder of a magazine that promoted LGBT rights; as well as the spate of deadly machete attacks on secular bloggers, publishers and intellectuals.
Police have determined that five to seven men killed Mannan and Mahbub Tonoy on April 25, 2016. But investigators have since made no significant headway and have arrested only one suspect, who was caught days after the attack.
Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) claimed responsibility for the double-murder, but investigators have blamed a local militant group with AQIS leanings, Ansarullah Bangla Team, for carrying out the killings.
Case of the missing professor
On Monday, the New York-based PEN America said Bangladesh had failed “to protect independent voices within Bangladesh’s intellectual sphere,” as it cited the disappearance of Mubashar Hasan, a Dhaka professor and policy analyst known internationally for his work on Islamic extremism.
“The disappearance of Dr. Mubashar Hasan is another in a long line of grave threats to scholars and independent thinkers in Bangladesh,” Karin Karlekar, a PEN America director, said in a statement. “The authorities must step up efforts to find and free Dr. Hasan from whatever forces are responsible for his disappearance as soon as possible.”
Hasan was last seen on Nov. 7, 2017 after teaching his class at North South University and while on his way to a meeting at the U.N. office in Dhaka, PEN said in the statement.
It said Hasan was a scholar of religion and politics who focused on the rise of Islamic extremism. He is also the founder of the secular website alchonnaa.com, which strives to promote democracy and pluralism within Bangladesh.
“Hasan’s disappearance is part of larger pattern of free speech violations in Bangladesh by both state and non-state actors,” PEN said. “According to local and international groups, extrajudicial executions of political opponents and other critical voices by security forces, particularly the Rapid Action Battalion, remain a serious concern, with dozens of cases reported each year.”
A senior official of an NGO that promotes LGBT rights in Bangladesh told BenarNews that the militants had been encouraged by the failure of authorities to conclude their investigation into the Mannan and Tonoy killings.
“Now, they have targeted the other people supporting the LGBT community. When we go to the police seeking protection, the police do not take our concern seriously. They make objectionable comments about us instead,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“That is why [LGBT groups] do not feel safe asking for police help,” he said.