Authorities in Bangladesh looked the other way as Islamic militants went on a rampage killing secular and atheist writers, says a publisher who fled abroad after his colleagues were attacked.
Four writers and a publisher, including an American citizen of Bangladeshi origin, were killed in 2015 by machete-wielding assailants because of their writings that criticized religious extremism.
“Fundamentalists are getting green signals from the government, either directly or indirectly, that if they kill someone, nothing will happen,” said Mahbub Leelen, who left Bangladesh in December.
Leelen, 41, told BenarNews in an interview via Skype that he was seeking asylum in the United States because he could be attacked any time by militants – or arrested by police.
Since 2013, groups including Ansarullah Bangla Team have circulated hit lists of dozens of intellectuals they consider as un-Islamic. Authorities have also arrested secular activists on charges of offending religious sentiment.
Leelen is a writer and co-founder of Shuddhashar Publishing House, a platform for secular thinkers writing in Bengali since 2004. He was not in the office on Oct. 31, 2015 when three of his colleagues were attacked and wounded there by militants.
That same day, in another part of Dhaka, militants killed publisher Faisal Arefin Dipan of the Jagriti Publishing House at his workplace.
It was the fifth and final machete attack of 2015 and it made clear that militants had shifted from targeting individual writers to terrorizing the publishers that mentor them, Leelen said.
No-one has been arrested for the attacks that day, but police subsequently sealed the Shuddhashar offices and showroom in Dhaka, allegedly for security purposes.
Leelen was a close associate of the Bangladeshi-American blogger Avijit Roy, who was hacked to death on Feb. 26. Leelen spent time with him on the day that turned out to be his last, joining Roy at the launch of a ground-breaking collection of writings by gay Bangladeshis.
BN: What are your thoughts on the anniversary of Avijit Roy’s death?
Leelen: You will find a lot of people everywhere who know science very well. You will find a lot of people everywhere who can write very well. ... You will find a few people who have a scientific attitude toward life, but they might not have writing skills or knowledge of science.
Avijit Roy was a combination of all these three things. He was a man of science. He had a high skill of writing and he had a scientific attitude.
He was also an organizer and mentor to young secular writers.
After one year, it is very hard for me to think about this anniversary. He was not only my friend, he was also the person of whom I could ask any question, I could depend for my personal writing.
BN: Why was Avijit killed?
Leelen: They didn’t attack Avijit Roy for any one of his particular books, I believe. Rather they have attacked him because of Mukto-Mona. He became the organizer of atheist writers and atheist young people, through the Mukto-Mona blog site.
BN: How is it possible that five people were killed in one year?
Leelen: From 2013, the [Bangladesh] government started cooperating with fundamentalists. This is the truth. They amended and prepared a law, the [Information and Communication Technology] Act, to stop secular writings.
In Bangladesh, punishment for attempted murder is two years and is bailable … but [offenses under] the ICT Law are not bailable. Minimum punishment is seven years, maximum is 14 years, and it can happen just from posting a Facebook status. … If someone just notifies a police officer that “OK, that guy posted a Facebook status which really hurt me,” then the police will come and arrest me and take me to prison for seven years.
In 2013, fundamentalists for the first time realized the power of bloggers ... then fundamentalists marched in to Dhaka with their demand, and one of them was death penalty for bloggers ….
In the politics of elections, writers are really not effective voters. They talk a lot, but they don’t go cast votes and they don’t go campaign for someone. … But fundamentalists are an organized group, and a vote bank. And so I think the government decided, it is wise to cooperate with them. …
Fundamentalists are getting green signals from the government, either directly or indirectly, that if they kill someone, nothing will happen.
BN: Where were you on Oct. 31?
Leelen: That was a weekend, Saturday, I was at my house … at that time, two writers were [at Shuddhashar’s office] from the morning, Ranadipam Basu and Tareq Rahim, preparing their book. Tutul [publisher Ahmedur Rashid Tutul] went there around 11 o’clock. I guess those people who were watching Tutul did not notice that some other people were already inside. …
At the same time, in another place, Dipan of Jagriti publishers was killed. He was alone working in his office on that day. We guess that those attacks were at the same time, around midday, by two groups. Dipan died, and somehow, these people survived. ...
They locked the door from outside when they left after the attack. Ranadipam Basu realized that he was attacked and going to die, he posted a Facebook status from his mobile, that “we are attacked at Shuddhashar office, Tutul, myself and Tareq.” Instantly friends saw that status, and in 20 to 30 minutes they could be rescued, just because of that Facebook status.
The day after the attack … Tutul sent me a message, “as early as possible, try to leave.” Everyone is saying that fundamentalists now started thinking about closing down publishing houses rather than targeting individual writers, because the number of individual writers is unlimited.
BN: What is the basis of your asylum petition?
Leelen: Fear, from two sides. At any time I can be attacked by a fundamentalist group and at any time I can be arrested by police ... this year, they closed down one stall in the Ekushey Book Fair and arrested the publisher, Shamsuzzoha Manik. Shamsuzzoha Manik is a very senior writer, more than 70. He was an activist and a publisher. ... They have also arrested the printing press manager. It is an alert to other printing houses: don’t go for printing this type of book.
BN: What has Bangladesh lost over the last year?
Leelen: Its identity as a secular country or a moderate Muslim country – Bangladesh lost that. It is really very hard for me to say that … I also lost that, because when people talk to me, they consider me as a Bangladeshi.
BN: Do you think you will ever go back?
Leelen: I would like to. I not only left my job and two houses; thousands of friends and family are there. People say “I like my country,” but I always say that “my country loves me” … if there is an emergency – I do not have money or something – I’ll not be helpless there.
And I talk, write, and I do my theater work all in Bangla. I’ll not find that anywhere in the world. ... When I think and dream, I dream in Bangla. …
I can’t really restart my life. And I’ll not be a native of any [other] land. I might get permission to stay, earn some money to survive … but I’ll not get my life back, and I’ll not be a native. So if I get a chance, obviously then tomorrow, I’ll be there.
BN: What are you doing now?
Leelen: I am now trying to do three things. Continue with my writings … develop Shuddhashar’s e-book publication side … and, with Mukto-Mona, we are trying to develop an archive of books, “Muktannesha.”
Bonya [Rafida Bonya Ahmed, Roy’s widow] already declared that all of Avijit’s books will be free of cost, e-books. Most of them are already uploaded on the Mutko-Mona site, and gradually other books will be converted. So I am working with other volunteers for Mukto-Mona’s archive.
If they stop publication and writing books, then basically they will stop everything. It is not just about a person’s life … because we hold now responsibility for more than 3,000 writers.
If Avijit’s image is stopped, then fundamentalists will realize that they have won. It’s now his spirit. I am working with young groups of people, with bloggers, writers … if we stop, then we’ll fail.