No Country for Bangladesh’s Gay Men

A funeral prayer for murdered activist Xulhaz Mannan last year in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Credit Rehman Asad/Barcroft India, via Barcroft Media, via Getty Images

Justice is becoming increasingly rare in Bangladesh for the families and friends of those murdered by terrorists. On April 25, 2016, Xulhaz Mannan, a prominent member of Bangladesh’s L.G.B.T. community, and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, a revered theater artist and L.G.B.T. activist, were both brutally murdered at Mr. Mannan’s house.

Six jihadists, wearing tailor-made courier-service outfits, pretended to deliver a parcel and hacked down the two men in front of Mr. Mannan’s mother. A severe Alzheimer’s patient, she still asks about her son’s whereabouts.
He was murdered because he had fostered a powerful vision of visibility around Bangladesh’s marginalized L.G.B.T. communities and published Bangladesh’s only L.G.B.T. magazine, Roopbaan.
Only one arrest has been made regarding the murders: Shariful Islam Shihab, a 37-year-old man who the police claimed was a member of the banned militant group Ansarullah Bangla Team. Mr. Shihab denies being a culprit.

A year after the murders, Bangladesh’s investigative officers have failed to file conclusions in court 13 times. “The police made contact on the day of his murder. They made no further contact in this entire year,” Mr. Mannan’s brother, Minhaz Mannan, told the local media. “I want my brother to remain alive among us,” he wrote to me recently. No trials have begun.
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Mr. Mannan and Mr. Tonoy’s murders were a turning point in Bangladesh’s persecution of L.G.B.T. communities. Several L.G.B.T. activists spent the past year erasing their social media traces. Some were arrested, or received death threats. Others were forced to reside in safe houses for months, provided by foreign embassies in Dhaka, before they fled into Sweden, Germany and the United States. Those who spoke up about Mr. Mannan’s murder, including the English-language daily Dhaka Tribune newspaper, have received warnings about supporting anti-Islamic speech from Al Qaeda in South Asia.

“Bangladesh’s government tried to use anti-American sentiments to further the notion that Xulhaz was not Bangladeshi, and that being gay is part of an ideology that is a Western import,” a co-founder of Roopbaan said.

I met Mr. Mannan in early 2013, when I moved back to Bangladesh after 15 years of living abroad. He helped me navigate a Dhaka whose constant curfews and widespread violence were alien to me. His openness and generosity were a great gift, an oasis for a liberal Muslim woman in an increasingly conservative country.

Class and its accouterments seemed to protect the liberal elite from the rage of Bangladesh’s streets. Yet Mr. Mannan, who had a lucrative day job at U.S.A.I.D. in Dhaka and had served as a distinguished protocol specialist to three United States ambassadors, did not hide behind darkened S.U.V. windows. He took public transport and lived a full, open life.

In 2010 the Bangladesh government set up a tribunal to try various men accused of war crimes during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. Several leaders of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party, whose numerous members had sided with the Pakistani military, were put on trial.

In February 2013, the war crimes tribunal sentenced Abdul Quader Molla, a Jamaat-e-Islaami politician, to life for war crimes. Secularists and bloggers organized protests and demanded harsher sentences — essentially the death penalty — for those accused of 1971 war crimes. Around 150 were killed in subsequent clashes between militant Islamists and secularists. Mr. Molla’s sentence was revised, and he was hanged in December 2013.

Ahmed Rajib Haider, a blogger and organizer of the secularist protests and an outspoken critic of militant Islamists, was the first to be murdered by machete-wielding assailants. Two men were sentenced to death for Mr. Haider’s killing. Several others, including Jasimuddin Rahmani, the leader of Ansarullah Bangla Team, received prison sentences. Other murders followed: intellectuals, religious minorities, foreigners and members of the L.G.B.T. community.

With an election approaching at the end of next year, the persecution of Bangladesh’s L.G.B.T. community is likely to get worse. In late May 2017, 28 L.G.B.T. men were arrested when they gathered for a party. A paramilitary force publicly identified them as homosexual.

Meanwhile, the ruling Awami League has started to align itself with homophobic, fundamentalist Hefazat-e-Islam. Hefazat is a network of madrasa leaders and students who hope to introduce Shariah in Bangladesh and initially gained popularity as a pressure group during the Shahbag protests of 2013. It has since grown into prominence as a significant political group.

The alliance with Hefazat, which has a significant following, promises an expansion of the once secular Awami League’s voter base in the coming election. The Awami League government has accepted several controversial Hefazat demands, including recognizing madrasa degrees as equivalent to master’s degrees awarded by universities; the replacement of Bengali words and Sufi poetry in primary schools; and the removal of a statue of Lady Justice from the Supreme Court.

The last time I met Mr. Mannan was soon after the first issue of Roopbaan was published, in 2014. He lamented how security concerns and online death threats made him reticent to increase media requests. When death threats escalated, I pleaded with Mr. Mannan to leave Bangladesh. He responded, “I don’t want to be a martyr, but I don’t want to be an escapist either” — and “keep us in your prayers.”

Ten days after the murders, Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, Bangladesh’s federal home minister, said: “Our society does not allow any movement that promotes unnatural sex. Writing in favor of it is tantamount to criminal offense, as per our law.”

On Aug. 22, 2016, Bangladesh updated its 2006 Information Communications and Technology Act with a cabinet-approved draft Digital Security Law to curb cybercrime. It imposes hefty fines or life imprisonment for “hurting religious sentiment.” Since 2013, more than 100 bloggers, journalists and others writing online have been arrested under the I.C.T. Act, reports PEN America. Since 2016, several grass-roots-level activists, journalists and human rights lawyers have received arrest warrants. These laws increasingly contract the space for freedom of expression.

Bangladesh’s plurality is under attack. Mr. Mannan and Mr. Tonoy’s murders, and the failure to bring their killers to justice, set a disturbing precedent of normalizing the exclusionary worldview that took their life.

Raad Rahman is a writer based in New York.

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