Two human rights activists, Xulhaz Mannan and Tonoy Mahbub, were hacked to death in Bangladesh on the evening of April 25, 2016. Both men were advocates for non-discrimination based on sexual orientation. Their attack followed other attacks on writers, educators, and bloggers, who promote liberal and secular ideas that radical groups believe are against Islam.
According to Human Rights Watch, the killings of Mannan and Mahbub brings to nine the number of liberals hacked to death in Bangladesh in 2016.
“The slaughter of two men advocating the basic rights of Bangladesh’s beleaguered LGBT community should prompt a thorough investigation, aimed at prosecuting those responsible,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to protect activists and to call a halt to the impunity that links this chain of vicious murders.”
On April 23, machete-wielding assailants killed Rezaul Karim Siddique, 58, an English professor at Rajshahi University, in an assault that copied previous attacks by Islamist militants on secular and atheist activists. On April 7, Nazim Uddin, who was openly critical of religion and Islamic fundamentalism, was hacked to death on the streets of Dhaka.
Mannan was an editor of Roopban, Bangladesh’s first LGBT-themed magazine, which began publishing in 2014. He was a visible and openly gay human rights activist who supported and protected LGBT people even in the face of threats against the community. Mahbub was also an openly gay activist.
Several bloggers and their publishers were similarly hacked to death by Islamist militants in 2015 for promoting secularism. Religious extremist groups have claimed responsibility for murders and even published a hit list of activists and bloggers. The government offered police protection for those on the hit list, but the protection has clearly been inadequate as several on the list have been killed since. Prime Minister Sheik Hasina advised bloggers to use restraint in their exercise of free speech or leave the country for their safety.
Although the prime minister has promised to take action against the attacks, authorities appointed by her have instead prosecuted bloggers for “hurting people’s religious sentiments.”
Mannan had participated in planning a diversity celebration slated to take place in Dhaka on April 14. The evening before the event, police asked organizers to cancel it due to threats against LGBT activists, and organizers agreed to the request. However, on the morning of April 14, police arrested four people and accused them of attempting to stage the event regardless. Mannan spent the day working for their release.
In 2013, the country’s National Human Rights Commission called on the government to protect sexual and gender minorities from discrimination. In a 2015 manual on sexual and gender minorities, the commission acknowledged that police physically and sexually assault LGBT people, and also arbitrarily arrest them based on their appearance.
In a 2015 report, Bangladeshi LGBT rights groups said that, “Visibility…can be life-threatening and isolating due to social stigma, religious beliefs and family values that create a hostile environment for LGBT individuals.” Following a 2015 visit, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religious belief said, “Sexual minorities do not find much acceptance in the society and often experience verbal or other abuse.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed LGBT people in Bangladesh in recent months and found that they faced threats of violence, particularly after homophobic public comments by Islamic leaders. Activists working on gender and sexuality said that to ensure their personal safety, they conceal their identities and constrain their work. Those who were exposed in the media and public spaces felt particularly vulnerable.
Same-sex sexual behavior, dubbed “carnal intercourse against the order of nature,” is criminalized in Bangladesh under section 377 of the country’s colonial-era penal code.
In recent years, LGBT people in Bangladesh have also been targeted with extremist rhetoric. For example, in November 2015, when activists began publishing a cartoon series featuring a lesbian character, religious groups issued hateful anti-LGBT statements, calling on the government to prosecute LGBT people under section 377 and Sharia (Islamic Law).
The government should use laws and law enforcement to protect, not harass and prosecute LGBT people, Human Rights Watch said.
In a 2009 UN human rights review, the government of Bangladesh received a recommendation to train law enforcement and judicial offers to protect women, children, and LGBT people “and adopt further measures to ensure protection of these persons against violence and abuse.” The government accepted the recommendation with regard to women and children, but said: “The specific recommendation on sexual orientation cannot be accepted.… Indeed, sexual orientation is not an issue in Bangladesh.”
“The massacre of two gay men in a private home demonstrates the need for the government to combat extremists preying on minorities,” Ganguly said. “Dismissing sexual orientation as a non-issue effectively sanctions abuse of an already-marginalized community.”
(Adapted from a press release from Human Rights Watch).