CFI Leads Coalition Effort to Urge State Department Engagement With Bangladesh Government

The Center for Inquiry has led a coalition effort to urge the State Department to strengthen its engagement with the Bangladesh government to ensure that the rights to freedom of religion, belief, and expression are fully protected within the country.

Signatories to this letter incude Freedom House, PEN America, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the Hindu American Foundation, and the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative.

The letter, which was sent to Secretary of State John Kerry and Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David Saperstein, stated in part:

As you might recall, we wrote to you exactly you one year ago (April 22, 2015) with serious concerns regarding deadly attacks on religious minorities, atheists, and secularists in Bangladesh. In particular, on February 26, 2015, Islamic extremists armed with machetes attacked writer and activist Avijit Roy while Roy was leaving a book fair in Dhaka, which he was visiting with his wife, Rafida Bonya Ahmed. Roy, a naturalized U.S. citizen well known in Bangladesh for authoring numerous books and founding the freethought forum Mukto-Mona (Free-mind), was killed; Ahmed, also a naturalized U.S. citizen who wrote prominently on evolutionary biology, was critically injured, but survived. Just one month later, on March 30, 2015, Washiqur Rahman — a 27-year-old atheist who expressed criticisms of religious fundamentalism on social media — was, like Roy, brutally murdered in the same fashion by machete-wielding Islamic extremists.

Disturbingly, what we had hoped would be tragic anomalies have become almost normal in Bangladesh. On May 12, 2015, Ananta Bijoy Das was killed by a group of men armed with machetes in Sylhet; on August 7, 2015, Niloy Neel was killed by a group of six men armed with machetes who tricked their way into Niloy’s home in Dhaka, locked his partner in a room, and proceeded to hack Niloy to death; and on October 31, 2015, Faisal Arefin Deepan, a Muslim publisher of secularist books, including those of Avijit Roy, was killed by machete-wielding assailants at his Jagriti Prokashoni publishing house. The same day, three others — Ahmedur Rashid Tutul, Tariq Rahim, and Ranadipam Basu — were seriously injured in a similar attack at the Shudhdhoswar publishing house.

And, just days ago, on April 6, 2016, the pattern continued as Nazimuddin Samad, a student at Jagannath University, was attacked and killed by several suspected Islamic extremists while returning home from class. Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) claimed this attack, as they have several others on atheists in the country.

But perhaps more disturbing than the attacks themselves has been the responses by the Bangladesh government. The government has not issued any formal statements of support for murdered or threatened religious minorities, atheists, or secularists. Few arrests have been made in the recent murders, and no charges have been filed. Several of the attacks occurred in public areas with witnesses, raising serious questions as to how and why suspects have not been identified or charged. And threatened secularist writers and publishers who remain in the country and have requested assistance from law enforcement have been told to self-censor or else leave the country if they desire safety.

The crisis also impacts U.S. foreign interests. While it is true that homegrown extremists have been responsible for most of the violent attacks in Bangladesh, there is no doubt that their activity — and the government’s actions, which have fueled extremism or else let it go unimpeded — has created a perfect breeding ground for foreign terrorist groups such as Daesh and AQIS. Indeed, there are now credible reports that these groups have sympathizers operating in the country.

We therefore urge you to continue your engagement with government and law enforcement officials in Bangladesh to ensure they recognize the value of strongly defending democratic values and the fundamental human rights. In particular, we urge you to pressure the Bangladesh government to speak publicly in defense of the rights to exercise freedom of religion, belief, and expression, and to work with law enforcement officials on the ground to ensure threatened individuals and groups are protected, and extremists who are responsible for the murders of minorities are rooted out and brought to justice.

You can read the full letter here.