Bangladeshi authorities Sunday announced the arrest of a suspected Islamic militant in last month’s killings of two gay-rights activists, including a U.S. government employee, and said they had identified two more suspects.
Meanwhile, police in southeastern Bandarban district told BenarNews on Sunday that two Rohingya Muslims were among three suspects being held in connection with the machete-killing of a 72-year-old Buddhist monk, whose body was found at a local monastery a day earlier. But it remained unclear whether that killing was religiously motivated or if Islamic militants were involved.
The arrest of Shariful Islam Shihab, a suspect who allegedly confessed to taking part in the April 25 killings of LGBT activists Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, came after the United States condemned the murders and called on Bangladesh to bring their killers to justice.
During a visit to Dhaka earlier this month, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Central and South Asian Affairs Nisha Desai Biswal said the United States would also support Bangladesh in stopping a wave of machete-killings targeting secular writers, publishers, intellectuals and religious minorities since early last year.
Apart from the monk’s murder, six people have been killed in machete attacks since early April in predominantly Sunni Muslim Bangladesh, including a Sufi Muslim leader, a Hindu tailor, a secular blogger, an English professor and Mannan and Tonoy – though the motives in some of those cases are still murky. According to Bangladesh’s home ministry, a total of 28 people including secular writers, activists and members of religious minorities were slain between early 2013 and May 5, 2016.
Shihab, a 37-year-old member of the banned militant group Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), was arrested in southwestern Kushtia district on Saturday, the chief of the Bangladeshi police’s counterterrorism and transnational crime unit told a news conference in Dhaka where the suspect was paraded.
“He had been associated with the Harkat-ul Jihad. He has confessed his role in the murder,” Monirul Islam told reporters, referring to another militant group. He specified that Shihad had confessed to planning and taking part in the killings.
Islam did not reveal the names of the two other suspects who had been identified by police in connection with the double-homicide at Mannan’s apartment in Dhaka, but said the killers had planned the attack two months ago.
Also on Sunday, a court in Dhaka turned down a police application to remand Shihab to police custody for 10 days. Instead, the court granted police a three-day remand so investigators could question the suspect.
According to eyewitnesses, at least five men were involved in killing Mannan, who worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development and was editor of Bangladesh’s first magazine devoted to coverage of LGBT issue, and Tonoy, a gay-rights activist who worked as a dramatist.
The local branch of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent claimed responsibility for the double-homicide, but Bangladeshi officials have maintained that neither AQIS nor Islamic State – which has claimed other murders in Bangladesh since last year – have a presence in the country.
Murder in Bandarban
In Bandarban, a hilly district with a large Buddhist population that lies along Bangladesh’s border with Myanmar, local police said they were holding a Buddhist man, 32-year-old Chham Chak, and two Rohingyas, Zia and Rahim – aged 25 and 26 – as suspects in the slaying of monk Maung Shwe Wuu Chak.
The monk was found dead inside his hilltop monastery in Upor Chokpara, a village in Bandarban’s Naikhongchhari sub-district.
“The killers hacked Wuu Chak to death between 9 p.m. Friday and 5 a.m. Saturday, and fled the crime scene. [H]is throat was slit and we saw two hacking marks behind and in front of the right ear,” Abul Khair, the officer-in-charge of the Naikhangchhari police station, told BenarNews, noting that the killers did not steal anything from the monastery.
“Based on our intelligence report, they have been detained for questioning. We have yet to show them as arrested on paper. If they have no role, we will release them,”
Police in Bangladesh can detain anyone on suspicion of committing a crime and reserve the right to question them. But once they record an arrest on paper, the police must produce the arrested persons before a court within 24 hours.
Citing an ongoing investigation, Khair declined to say whether the monk was killed because of his faith.
Naikhangchhari is next to Cox’s Bazar, a Bangladeshi district where tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have fled from persecution in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar live in refugee camps or without proper papers.
On the Bangladeshi side of the border, tensions exist between the two communities and have flared up in the past. Four years ago, as Rohingyas were fleeing from religious violence in the neighboring Myanmar state of Rakhine, the Buddhist community in Cox’s Bazar accused Rohingyas of attacking them.
‘A very tranquil place’
Dhunsha Aung Chak, a local schoolteacher who knew the monk, said Wuu Chak became a monk in 2010 and set up the monastery on his own land.
The village where the killing occurred is inhabited by Buddhists and members of the Chak community, a local hill tribe, he said.
“We do not have any dispute with anyone. Our village had been a very tranquil place,” Aung Chak told BenarNews.