Dhaka, Bangladesh – A court in Bangladesh has sentenced four people to death for killing a blogger and science writer critical of hardline 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 city of Sylhet on May 12, 2015.
His murder happened only three months after US-based Bangladeshi blogger Avijit Roy was killed in a similar fashion by machete-wielding assailants in the capital Dhaka. Roy had founded a website called Mukto-Mona (Free Thinkers) for which Das also used to write.
Between 2013 and 2016, Bangladesh saw a series of deadly attacks on bloggers, secular activists and religious minorities, claimed by armed groups linked to ISIL (ISIS) or al-Qaeda.
While delivering the verdict on Wednesday, Judge Nurul Amin Biplob of the Sylhet Anti-Terrorism Tribunal told a packed courtroom that “if these accused are not given exemplary punishment, people of other terrorist, extremist ideologies will be encouraged to commit such killings”.
The four men given the death penalty for Das’s murder are Abul Hossain, 25; Abul Khayer Rashid Ahmed, 24; Faysal Ahmed, 27; and Mamunur Rashid, 25.
A fifth accused, Safiur Rahman Farabi, was acquitted for 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 announced, the remaining three convicts are absconding.
‘Fear and apprehension’
While delivering the verdict, Judge Biplob said Das was brutally murdered in broad daylight for practising his fundamental right to free speech.
“The main purpose (of the killing) was to spread fear and apprehension among writers who wrote or spoke about liberalism, progressivism, science and prejudice prevalent in the society through the brutality and horror of the killing,” he said.
Mominur Rahman Titu, special counsel for the state in the Sylhet anti-terrorism tribunal, said: “Justice has been ensured through this verdict. We are satisfied.”
However, another 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 violation of justice” and said he will appeal in a higher court.
“Abul Khayer was not involved in the killings,” he said. “At that time, he did not use Facebook or blog. He did not even know Ananta Bijoy.”
Das’s brother-in-law Samar Vijay Shri Shekhar was present in the court when the verdict was announced and called for speedy implementation of the verdict.
“Once the verdict is implemented, the family will get some relief. Besides, three convicts are fugitives. They should be arrested soon,” he told Al Jazeera.
Das, a banker by profession and the general secretary of the Council for Science and Rationalism of Bangladesh, used to edit a magazine called Jukti (Logic), besides being associated with Roy’s Mukto-Mona blog where he mostly wrote on evolutionary theories in science.
After Roy’s murder in 2015, Das feared he could also be killed by the same assailants and tried to flee the country. But he failed.
In April of that year, he was invited to attend a press freedom event organised by the Swedish PEN organisation, but he could not get a visa for Sweden.
“Murders of Avijit or Ananta put a dent in the face of our nation. It was a slap in the face of secularism,” Bangladesh rights activist Nur Khan Liton told Al Jazeera.
“Yes, verdicts in both the cases have been delivered. But Bangladesh still fails to create a space where people can freely express their opinion without fear,” he said.
Sweden-based exiled Bangladeshi journalist Tasneem Khalil condemned the capital punishment given to Das’s killers. “It can never be a tool for ensuring justice. This horrible medieval practice has no place in a modern, civilised society,” he told Al Jazeera.
However, Khalil added that by “slaughtering” Das and other Bangladeshi rationalists, the killers “successfully ensured that religious issues are now a taboo topic in the country”.
“Very few, if any, dare to speak up on religion these days, lest they too are killed while the government watches from the sideline.”