For the first time, Bangladeshi police say they have arrested two men who are members of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group.
Aminul Islam Beg and Shakib Bin Kamal were arrested separately in the Lalmatia and Uttara suburbs of Dhaka on Sunday, police announced the following day.
“Aminul is the regional coordinator of the banned Jamatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). His objective was to establish a caliphate as directed by the IS,” Monirul Islam, joint commissioner of Dhaka Metropolitan police (Detective Branch), told reporters at his office.
“To fulfil his objective, he was involved in collecting money, recruiting members and assassinating important personalities as a coordinator for the IS,” he added. “Shakib was recruited by Aminul as an IS member.”
Police did not present any evidence to support the allegations, and reporters were not allowed to ask the suspects questions.
Past arrests of accused militants have followed a similar pattern in Bangladesh.
Police present suspects and make statements about them, but reporters are not allowed to ask any questions.
The suspects are then sent to jail and face a legal process that can drag on for years.
Indeed, there has been no final verdict in any militant-related cases since seven top leaders of JMB were hanged in 2007 by an army-backed caretaker government.
“The way law enforcement agencies are publicizing these matters without any concrete evidence is bound to raise serious questions about whether they are militants or there is a motive behind it,” Syed Abul Maksud, a well-known newspaper columnist, told BenarNews.
“It’s always one-sided news, and there is no way to verify the police claim, as journalists are not allowed to talk to the militants in custody,” he added.
Some analysts are skeptical about the government’s claim of rising militant activities.
“We have noticed that the news about militant activities is blown out of proportion, apparently in an effort to deflect public attention whenever the government in power faces some crisis,” Badiul Alam Majumdar, secretary of Sujon, a watchdog body campaigning for good governance and rule of law in the country, told BenarNews.
He cited the recent grim news about illegal migrants, mostly Bangladeshis and Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, fleeing abject poverty and lack of job opportunities at home.
“This is certainly not what the government wants to hear when it claims massive development and job creation at home,” he added.
Other observers say that Bangladesh is facing a real challenge in dealing with religious extremism, but the government is exploiting the problem for political gain.
“There is no doubt that it is a matter of concern, but what is disturbing is the manner in which the issue is being used primarily to crush opponents and stifle dissent,” said Sharifuzzaman Sharif, president of Nagorik Udoyg (Citizens Initiative), a rights group in Dhaka.
“This is being done primarily to demonstrate to the Western powers that this government is serious about eliminating militancy and in the process gain their support in crushing political opponents like BNP and Jamaat, who are often branded as promoters of militancy,” he said, referring to the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party.
“It may bring short-term benefits but, in the long run, this tactic is not going to solve the real problems of lawlessness, unemployment and poverty, which create the ideal condition for extremism to thrive.”
ABT ban creates confusion
Suspected Islamists have hacked to death three bloggers in 2015, apparently in retaliation for online writings that criticize Muslim fundamentalists.
Members of a domestic group called Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) claimed responsibility for the first two attacks and urged journalists to write that al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent was responsible for the third.
On Sunday the government announced a ban on ABT, which caused confusion because the militant organization had already been banned two years ago after claiming involvement in the February 2013 murder of Ahmed Rajib Haider, a blogger accused of being an atheist.
When reporters asked Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, state minister for home affairs, about the ABT ban, he gave an equivocal reply.
“It is true that the clandestine organization is already banned. So there is not much of a difference in its formal banning,” he said.
So far police have been unable to find any clues about its organizational structure or its whereabouts, except claiming that 20 of its members, including its alleged chief Jashim Uddin Rahmani, are under arrest.