Bangladeshi police stormed a community center outside Dhaka early Friday and arrested 27 men – mostly students between the ages of 18 and 20 – on suspicion of being gay, officials told BenarNews Friday.
Maj. Monjur Morshed, a camp commander of the elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), said members of his team raided the Chhayaneer Community Center in Keraniganj, outside the nation’s capital, early Friday.
“We arrested 27 people on charges of homosexuality,” he said, adding that a 55-year-old man believed to be the center’s supervisor was detained for questioning.
Morshed said the raiding team seized banned drugs and other contraband items, such as cannabis, “yaba” (methamphetamine) tablets and sexual stimulants from the suspects.
Homosexual acts are illegal in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, which has a legal code that describes “unnatural offenses” as “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” Defendants could be sentenced to life in prison if found guilty of sodomy.
Among the men arrested during the raid on Friday was a college sophomore at Rajshahi University in northwestern Bangladesh. He asked not to be identified.
“We were eating food after finishing the dance when the RAB members came and arrested us,” he said, explaining the raid took place at what is locally known as a Dance Jockey party attended by students from across the country.
Jahangir Matabbar, commanding officer of RAB-10, said the suspects would face charges of possessing illegal drugs and narcotics, potentially facing lighter sentences, instead of the British-era sodomy law, which is rarely enforced.
It is unusual for Bangladesh authorities to conduct multiple arrests against members of the gay and lesbian community, according to the officer-in-charge of a police station in Dhaka who requested anonymity.
“We overlook their activities,” he said, referring to gays and lesbians. “They are not violent; they do not harm anyone. They maintain a close circle among themselves.”
The arrests on Friday came a little more than a year after Muslim extremists armed with machetes barged into a Dhaka apartment and killed gay-rights activists Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Tonoy. The killings remain unsolved, but police arrested one suspect and have determined five to seven men carried out the killings on April 25, 2016.
Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) claimed responsibility for the killings, but investigators said a local militant group with AQIS leanings, Ansarullah Bangla Team, is responsible.
Members of Bangladesh’s gay and lesbian community have expressed fears that they could be targeted as the country deals with a spate of deadly attacks where suspected Muslim militants targeted writers, publishers and intellectuals.
New blog promotes gay rights
Boys of Bangladesh, an organization of the self-declared local and expatriate homosexuals, last month launched a new web blog called Dhee to commemorate the killings of Tonoy and Mannan, who worked at the American embassy in Dhaka for the U.S. Agency for International Development and moonlighted as editor of Roopbaan, Bangladesh’s first LGBT magazine.
The blog details the fears and sufferings that have been experienced by homosexuals in Bangladesh.
“We have been in constant fear,” said an organizer of Boys of Bangladesh who identified himself as a friend of Mannan and Tonoy.
“I could not sleep on that night (when Mannan and Tonoy were killed). It was dark everywhere; there was pin-drop silence around me,” he recalled during an interview with BenarNews. “A cat was walking on the tin-roof of my room, but that sound made me think someone with machetes was coming to hack me.”
The executive director of a nongovernment organization, who also asked not to be identified, told BenarNews that gays and lesbians in Bangladesh fear a “serious security threat.”
“We do not know whether we will get protection from the police,” he said “We are not confident to launch any fresh program to promote the rights of the LGBT community.”
Even two years ago, he said, his organization arranged seminars, round tables, workshops and offered fellowships for journalists.
“Now, we have been working among ourselves,” he said.
Kamran Reza Chowdhury in Dhaka contributed to this report.