Pressure mounts on Bangladesh after 2 gay rights activists are hacked to death

The bodies of LGBT activists Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Tonoy being brought out of the building where they were attacked, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on April 25, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

DHAKA (AFP) - Pressure mounted on Bangladesh on Tuesday (April 26) after two leading gay rights activists were hacked to death, the latest in a series of chilling attacks on intellectuals, writers and religious minorities for which only a handful of people have been convicted.

At least six men carrying machetes and guns entered an apartment building in Dhaka on Monday night and killed Mr Xulhaz Mannan, editor of a magazine for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community, and fellow activist Mahbub Tonoy.

Rights groups said the latest killings and the murder last Saturday of a liberal university professor appeared to show the attackers were expanding their range of targets. They demanded justice and greater protection for minority groups in the conservative Muslim nation.

"The brutal killing today of an editor of an LGBTI publication and his friend, days after a university professor was hacked to death, underscores the appalling lack of protection being afforded to a range of peaceful activists in the country," said Amnesty International's South Asia director Champa Patel.

US Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the killings of Mr Tonoy and Mr Mannan, who worked for US government aid organisation USAid. Both had received threats from Islamists over their championing of gay rights.

"Deplore brutal murder of @USAID local staff member and another Bangladeshi advocate in Dhaka. Those responsible must be brought to justice," Mr Kerry tweeted.

In the last month alone, four people have been murdered in Bangladesh for their liberal or secular views, among them a 26-year-old online activist known for his anti-Islamist views.

Last year four secular bloggers and a publisher were hacked to death. A number of Christians, Hindus and Sufi, Ahmadi and Shi'ite Muslims have also been killed since last year in the officially secular but mainly Sunni Muslim country.

No one has yet been convicted over those deaths despite a number of arrests.

Last year, a Bangladesh court sentenced two students to death for the 2013 murder of Mr Ahmed Rajib Haider, the first of a string of attacks targeting secular writers.

Another five people were convicted on lesser charges related to Mr Haider's death.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has claimed a number of the killings, most recently that of a professor hacked to death in the north-western city of Rajshahi.

A Bangladesh branch of Al-Qaeda has also said it was behind the murders of secular bloggers and writers.

However, the Bangladesh government rejects those claims and says homegrown Islamist groups are responsible.

On Monday, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina blamed the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its Islamist ally, Jamaat-e-Islami for the deaths of the two gay activists killed and accused them of trying to destabilise the country.

"The BNP-Jamaat nexus has been engaged in such secret and heinous murders in various forms to destabilise the country," Ms Hasina said.

"Such killings are being staged in a planned way."

Bangladesh media criticised the government's claims, saying it had a duty to protect minorities whoever was behind the attacks.

"It doesn't matter whether they are from transnational terrorist groups like IS as they have claimed, or part of locally based militant networks, as the government argues," said the Dhaka Tribune daily in an editorial on Tuesday.

"Their aim is to create fear and hatred. They need to be stopped. Appeasement will not stop such murders. The government must catch the killers and fulfill its duty to protect all citizens."

Mr Mannan's magazine, Roopbaan, was launched two years ago and has become a platform for promoting the rights of LGBT people in Bangladesh, where homosexual acts are illegal.

The group also runs an annual Rainbow Rally on April 14, Bengali new year, that was cancelled this year as part of widespread security measures imposed by police.

Ahead of the planned rally, Mannan told AFP that Islamists had posted death threats online.

"They have even set up an online group to threaten us," he said.

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