Four held in Bangladesh over Italian aid worker murder

Bangladeshi police escort (from left) Tamjid Ahmed Rubel, Shakhawat Hossain, Russel Chowdhury and Minhajul Abedin Russel after they were arrested over the murder of Italian citizen Cesare Tavella in Dhaka on Oct 26, 2015.
Bangladeshi police escort (from left) Tamjid Ahmed Rubel, Shakhawat Hossain, Russel Chowdhury and Minhajul Abedin Russel after they were arrested over the murder of Italian citizen Cesare Tavella in Dhaka on Oct 26, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

DHAKA (AFP) - Bangladesh made its first arrests over an Italian aid worker's murder as authorities insisted on Monday (Oct 26) the killing was a plot by the government's opponents to trigger anarchy and not the work of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group.

Police paraded four people detained over last month's killing of 50-year-old Cesare Tavella along with a motorbike said to have been used as a getaway vehicle in the shooting late last month in Dhaka.

The killing near the capital's diplomatic zone was the first of a series of attacks to be claimed by ISIS and was followed days later by the gunning down of a Japanese farmer in northern Bangladesh.

A weekend bombing of the main Shi'ite shrine in Dhaka, which killed one person and wounded dozens more, has further heightened the fears of minorities living in the mainly Muslim but officially secular nation.

But although that attack was also claimed by ISIS, the government responded on Sunday by denying the extremist group was active in Bangladesh and instead rounded up dozens of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's opponents.

Speaking after the four suspects were brought before the media, Dhaka police said they had all admitted killing Tavella on "the orders of a so-called big brother who offered them money".

"They carried out the murder to embarrass the government, to put the government under pressure and to create anarchy," Dhaka police commissioner Asaduzzaman Mia told reporters.

"So far what they've admitted to us is that they were not specifically targeting Cesare Tavella but their aim [WAS TO]kill any white-skinned foreigner.Their big brother wanted to prove that Bangladesh is not safe for foreigners and if they could prove that, then it would put pressure on the government."

Police described two of the suspects as drug addicts who have previous criminal convictions while another was a drug-dealer and the fourth was "a cold-blooded killer".

- Mystery 'big brother' -

They did not elaborate on the identity of the "big brother" said to have ordered the killing of Tavella who worked for a faith-based Dutch charity.

But Mia insisted it could not have been carried out by ISIS or another extremist religious group behind the recent killings of atheist bloggers.

"There is no militant connection with this killing. This is entirely a local group which wants to make political capital," he said.

His comments echoed those of Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal who told reporters after the shrine blast that "the IS organisation does not exist in Bangladesh", referring to the other name for the militant group.

Bangladesh prides itself on being a mainly moderate Muslim nation but the gruesome killings of a series of atheist bloggers this year have rocked the nation and sparked a crackdown on local hardline Islamist groups.

After the foreigners' murder, international schools closed temporarily and embassies restricted their diplomats' movements, while Australia's cricket team cancelled a planned tour over security concerns.

As well as the attacks claimed by religious hardliners, Bangladesh has been plagued by deadly political violence blamed on followers of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party which boycotted elections in 2014.

Hasina and her allies have consistently blamed the BNP and its main Islamist ally Jamaat-e-Islami for both the unrest and the attacks on foreigners and religious minorities.

After the attack on the Shiite shrine, a former BNP lawmaker in Dhaka and several senior officials from both parties were detained.

Although police said the arrests were related to previous unrest and not linked to Saturday's blast, the BNP said the government was clearly using the heightened state of anxiety as a pretext to crack down on opponents.

Scores of opposition activists including Islamists have been detained since the start of the year when fresh anti-government protests erupted.

The unrest also threatens to hurt the economy, with representatives from international retailers who are the lifeblood of the vital garment industry cancelling or postponing trips to the country.