Dhaka, Bangladesh – A court in Bangladesh has sentenced four people to death for killing a blogger and science writer critical of radical religious thought seven years ago.
Ananta Bijoy Das, known for his critical writings on religions, was attacked by masked men with machetes near his home in the northeastern town of Sylhet on May 12, 2015.
His killing came just three months after US-based Bangladeshi blogger Avijit Roy was similarly killed by machete-wielding assailants in the capital Dhaka. Roy had founded a website called Mukto-Mona (Freethinkers) for which Das also wrote.
Between 2013 and 2016, Bangladesh experienced a series of deadly attacks against bloggers, secular activists and religious minorities, claimed by armed groups linked to ISIL (ISIS) or Al-Qaeda.
Delivering the verdict on Wednesday, Judge Nurul Amin Biplob of the Sylhet Counter-Terrorism Tribunal told a crowded courtroom that “if these defendants are not punished in an exemplary manner, people of other terrorist and extremist ideologies will be encouraged to commit such murders”.
The four men on death row for Das’ murder are Abul Hossain, 25; Aboul Khayer Rachid Ahmed, 24; Faisal Ahmed, 27; and Mamunur Rashid, 25.
A fifth defendant, Safiur Rahman Farabi, was acquitted due to lack of evidence against him. However, Farabi is already serving a life sentence for Roy’s murder.
Farabi and Rashid Ahmed were present in court on Wednesday when the verdict was delivered, the other three convicted are at large.
“Fear and Apprehension”
Delivering the verdict, Judge Biplob said Das had been brutally murdered in broad daylight for exercising his fundamental right to free speech.
“The main purpose (of the murder) was to spread fear and apprehension among writers who wrote or spoke about liberalism, progressivism, science and the prejudices prevalent in society through the brutality and horror of murder “, did he declare.
Mominur Rahman Titu, Special State Adviser to the Sylhet Anti-Terrorism Court, said: “Justice has been secured through this verdict. We are satisfied.
However, fellow lawyer Misbah Uddin Siraj, who appeared on behalf of the prosecution, said he was “not entirely satisfied” with the verdict as Farabi was acquitted in the case.
“We were able to prove Farabi’s guilt in court. However, I do not understand the reason for his release. We will appeal to the High Court in this regard,” Siraj told Al Jazeera.
The defendants’ lawyer, Abdul Ahad, called the verdict a “serious breach of justice” and said he would appeal to a higher court.
“Abul Khayer was not involved in the killings,” he said. “At that time, he didn’t use Facebook or blog. He didn’t even know Ananta Bijoy.
Das’ brother-in-law, Samar Vijay Shri Shekhar, was present in court when the verdict was announced and called for a speedy implementation of the verdict.
“Once the verdict is implemented, the family will get some relief. In addition, three convicts are on the run. They should be arrested soon,” he told Al Jazeera.
Das, a banker by profession and Secretary General of the Council for Science and Rationalism of Bangladesh, edited a magazine called Jukti (Logic), in addition to being associated with Roy’s Mukto-Mona blog where he wrote mainly about evolutionary theories in science.
After Roy’s murder in 2015, Das feared he would also be killed by the same assailants and attempted to flee the country. But he failed.
In April of that year, he was invited to attend a press freedom event organized by the Swedish organization PEN, but he was unable to obtain a visa for Sweden.
“The killings of Avijit or Ananta put a dent in the face of our nation. It was a slap in the face to secularism,” human rights activist Nur Khan Liton told Al Jazeera.
“Yes, the verdicts in both cases have been rendered. But Bangladesh still fails to create a space where people can express their opinion freely without fear,” he said.
Exiled Bangladeshi journalist based in Sweden, Tasneem Khalil, condemned the death penalty imposed on Das’ killers. “It can never be a tool to secure justice. This horrible medieval practice has no place in a modern, civilized society,” he told Al Jazeera.
However, Khalil added that by “massacring” Das and other Bangladeshi rationalists, the killers “succeeded in making religious matters now a taboo subject in the country”.
“Very few, if any, dare to speak of religion these days, lest they too be killed while the government watches from the sidelines.”