Suspected militant held for murders of gay rights activists

Shariful Islam Shihab under police escort in Dhaka yesterday. He allegedly owned one of the guns used in the murders of gay rights activists Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Tonoy last month, but he denies carrying out the killings.
Shariful Islam Shihab under police escort in Dhaka yesterday. He allegedly owned one of the guns used in the murders of gay rights activists Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Tonoy last month, but he denies carrying out the killings.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

DHAKA • Bangladesh police have arrested a suspected Islamic militant over the hacking to death of two gay rights activists - part of a spate of murders of intellectuals, writers and religious minorities - officers said yesterday.

Mr Xulhaz Mannan, the editor of a magazine for Bangladesh's gay and lesbian community, and fellow activist Mahbub Tonoy were murdered in a Dhaka apartment last month by men carrying machetes and guns.

The police have arrested Shariful Islam Shihab, who they said was a member of a local Islamic militant outfit that has been blamed for a string of similarly gruesome murders of secular and atheist bloggers.

"We've arrested one man in connection with the murder of Xulhaz Mannan," Dhaka police spokesman Maruf Hossain Sorder told Agence France-Presse. "He is a member of the Ansarullah Bangla Team."

At a press briefing in the capital, the police said Shihab - who has denied carrying out the killings - owned one of two guns that were used in the murders. The 37-year-old was arrested last Saturday in the western town of Kushtia, after raids on several properties, in what Dhaka counter-terrorism chief Monirul Islam said was a "breakthrough" in the case.

"They killed the gay rights activists because they were creating confusion about Islam," Mr Sorder said, adding that the investigation was ongoing.

Washington has condemned the killings of Mr Tonoy and Mr Mannan, who worked for American government aid organisation USAID. Both men had received threats from Islamists over their championing of gay rights.

The arrest comes after an elderly Buddhist monk was found hacked to death last Saturday at a temple in the south-eastern district of Bandarban - the seventh such killing since the start of last month.

Suspected Islamists have been blamed or have claimed responsibility for the scores of murders carried out since last year. The rising violence has sent fear rippling through the Muslim-majority nation.

Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent said it was behind the killings of Mr Mannan and Mr Tonoy, saying that the two men had worked to "promote homosexuality" in Bangladesh.

But Bangladesh police chiefs have said that their murders bear the hallmarks of local Islamists.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 16, 2016, with the headline 'Suspected militant held for murders of gay rights activists'. Print Edition | Subscribe