Five people have been sentenced to death for the 2015 murder of Bangladeshi-American blogger Avijit Roy, while a sixth has been sentenced to life in prison. All six men were members of armed group Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), an Al-Qaeda-inspired Islamist militant organization operating in Bangladesh. The group has been responsible for the deaths of numerous secular activists and bloggers over the past few years.
Roy, a writer and advocate for free expression, was hacked to death while returning home from a Dhaka book fair on February 26th, 2015. His wife, Rafida Bonya Ahmed, who was with him at the time, was critically injured but survived the attack. Roy was the founder of Mukto-Mona — meaning ‘freethinker’ — a popular blog where Bangladeshi freethinkers, atheists, and secularists would share articles on topics pertaining to scientific reasoning, humanist ideas, and the condemnation of religious extremism. He was also a published author, having written a series of books whose subject matter explored themes of atheism, homosexuality, astrophysics, and evolution. He was eventually targeted by the ABT due to his criticizing of religious extremism.
The attack occurred at a time in which Bangladesh was experiencing a string of targeted killings against activists and bloggers, many of which were claimed by ISIS or Al-Qaeda-aligned groups. The gravest occurred in July 2016, when 22 people were killed after gunmen stormed a cafe in Dhaka; it incited a nation-wide crackdown that led to the arrests and killings of hundreds of suspected militants, and the setting up of major anti-terrorism police units by the Bangladesh government in an effort to abolish Islamist militants.
According to CTV News, the men’s defence lawyer said they plan to appeal the verdict. Two of the men remain at large and were tried in absentia, including Syed Ziaul Haq, a sacked army major who is believed to have been the mastermind behind the killing. Despite the sentencing, Roy’s widow doesn’t believe the verdict will bring peace to her family and has criticized the investigation. “In six years, not one person investigating the case in Bangladesh reached out to me – though I am a direct witness and victim of the attack,” she wrote in a statement posted on Facebook. “Simply prosecuting a few foot-soldiers – and ignoring the rise and roots of extremism – does not mean justice for Avi’s death,” she continued.
While counterterrorism approaches play an unequivocally crucial role in the fight against extremism, Ahmed is correct. Efforts to prevent and end extremism must be targeted at the root, with a focus on strengthening social and political institutions as opposed to only killing and prosecuting militants. The country’s weak democratic institutions must be addressed, and it is time for institutional reforms to be put in place. Bangladeshi writers and bloggers should be able to speak freely, without fear of reprisal, and without fear of being murdered — as should anyone.
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