A court in Bangladesh has sentenced four people to death for the murder of prominent writer and academic Humayun Azad in 2004.
Azad, 56, was hacked with cleavers by the members of Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) on February 27, 2004 when he was on his way home from a book fair in Dhaka.
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He died in August that year while undergoing treatment in Germany. Amid outrage over the killing, the JMB was banned the next year.
Azad’s murder is considered the first in a series of brutal killings of academics, writers, bloggers and secularists in Bangladesh a decade later – between 2013 and 2016 – by Muslim right-wing groups. Most of them were killed in broad daylight using machetes.
While announcing the verdict in a packed courtroom on Wednesday, Additional Metropolitan Sessions Judge Al-Mamun said the convicts – Mohammad Mizanur Rahman Minhaz, Anwarul Alam, Nur Mohammad Shamim and Salehin Sani – committed a “heinous offence”.
Among them, Sani and Shamim are on the run. A fifth suspect in the case, Hafez Mahmud, was killed in an alleged gunfight with police in 2014.
“It’s better to get delayed justice than no justice at all,” Azad’s elder daughter Mauli Azad told Al Jazeera after the announcement of the verdict.
“It took 18 years to get a verdict. I am nonetheless happy. I want the government to find out the two who are absconding and bring them to justice as well.”
Azad was an award-winning author and professor of Bangla literature at Dhaka University.
He has more than 60 publications to his credit, including seven poetry books, 20 novels and dozens of non-fiction books. In 1986, he received the Bangla Academy Award, the country’s highest literary award.
In 1995, his book on modern feminism, Nari, was banned, three years after its publication, for offending “Muslim religious sentiment”. The ban was lifted after a protracted five-year legal battle.
In 2004, his novel, Pak Sar Jamin Sad Bad (Blessed Be the Sacred Land), which criticised religious fundamentalism, angered Muslim right-wing groups in Bangladesh, who started issuing threats to him.
A week before the fatal attack on Azad, Muslim preacher and then member of parliament Delwar Hossain Sayeedi told the house the writer’s work should be banned and a case of blasphemy be filed against him.
Sayeedi’s speech in parliament is said to have led to the writer’s killing, though charges against the hardline politician were dropped.
“He [Sayeedi] should have been implicated,” Azad’s younger brother Manjur Kabir told Al Jazeera.
In 2014, Sayeedi’s death sentence for crimes against humanity during the 1971 war for Bangladesh’s liberation from Pakistan was commuted to a life sentence.
Dhaka-based journalist Shariful Hasan was a second-year student at Dhaka University when Azad was attacked. Hasan said he was present at the scene and took the blood-soaked professor to hospital.
“It was the first incident in Bangladesh when machetes came out against the pen. Before that, it never happened,” he told Al Jazeera.
According to Hasan, religious intolerance began to grow in Bangladesh after Azad’s murder.
“About a decade later, we saw how writers and bloggers were attacked and killed. If we could have served justice in Azad’s murder sooner, the other murders could have been stopped.”