Editorial opinion | Death penalty to the murderers will not deliver justice for Avijit and Dipan

When a publisher no longer faces any censorship in republishing Avijit Roy’s work; when the book vendors no longer dare to stop selling Avijit’s books; when government officials no longer blame martyred writers and publishers for their tragic demise; when journalists no longer face intimidation, when cartoonists no longer have to languish in jail for producing satirical works; when those in exile can return home and continue their work without fear; then, and only then will true justice be served.

 

Although they will bring some solace to families and friends of those perished, the recent court verdicts in the Dipan and Avijit murder cases seriously fall short in addressing the culture of impunity that has taken root in Bangladesh and to which Avijit and Dipan’s fell victim. In both cases, some of those sentenced, including the mastermind behind the killings, Sayed Mohammad Ziaul Haque, are still at large. Verdicts are still due in other murder cases the same jihadist group was found to be involved in. The two verdicts came after years of delay. Tragically, Avijit Roy’s father, Professor Ajoy Roy, who, for years, campaigned for justice passed away in 2019. That Ajoy Roy, a renowned Physicist and a decorated war veteran, who fought in the 1971 war of independence, could not witness his son’s killers facing justice is a great shame for a nation he helped to gain independence. Key witnesses, including Avijit’s wife Rafida Ahmed Bonya who miraculously survived after sustaining severe injuries in the attack, were not asked to provide testimony. Although initially apprehended, Mukul Rana, who participated in the Avijit Roy killing mission, was later gunned down by the police under mysterious circumstances.

In 2013, after blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider was gruesomely murdered by Ansarullah operatives, had the law enforcement agencies taken the initiative to dismantle the Ansarullah Bangla Team’s jihadist network, the spree of killings that ensued could have been avoided. Instead, government officials, including the prime minister, hurled blames on those murdered, accused the victims of hurting religious sentiments, and gave fodder to the rising intolerance against secular writers, publishers, LGBTI activists and religious minorities. Furthermore, due to its weakened democratic legitimacy, the government has capitulated to many of the demands of  Hefazat-e-Islam, a hardline Islamist group bent on turning Bangladesh into a medieval fiefdom. The government used the draconian Information and Communication Security Act, later upgraded to the Digital Security Act, to arrest four bloggers whose names appeared on a list of 84 bloggers it compiled after consulting hardline Islamist leaders. Once it got leaked, the Ansarullah jihadists used the list as a hit list to hunt down the named bloggers and activists, many of whom went into exile to save their lives. Today, the Awami League government, its party members and hardline Islamists use the Digital Security Act to target political dissidents, secular activists, journalists and religious minorities. From adolescent school children to cartoonists, whoever draws the government’s ire, finds themselves behind bars.

Every year at the annual Ekusehy Book Fair, the organisers, Bangla Academy, assume the religious police’s role. Its officials sift through thousands of newly published books to locate those that have supposedly hurt the religious majority’s sentiments. The banning of books has become a common practice since 2015. Many renowned writers, who claim to be progressives, have either remained silent or expressed support for these acts of censorship. Even though they remain highly sought after, Avijit Roy’s books are out of print. After facing Islamist threats, the largest online bookseller in Bangladesh, rokomari.com, no longer offers Avijit Roy’s books. Indeed, its only response has been to immediately remove an author’s books once they get killed. However, several books of Islamist ideologues that vividly describe the gruesome assassinations of apostates were openly sold only a few years ago. Shuddhashar, a progressive publishing house that published the books of slained authors Avijit Roy and Ananta Bijoy was forced to close its operation after militants stormed into its office premises and gravely injured its editor and two of its authors. Today, based in Scandinavia, Shuddhashar continues the struggle Avijit, Ananta and Dipan believed in.

From astronomy to homosexuality, from evolutionary biology to classic literature, Avijit Roy penned numerous books, articles, and blogs on diverse topics. However, they shared one thing in common: In all his writings, Avijit Roy shed light on the uncomfortable truth, challenged religious dogmas, and promoted secular humanism as an alternative to a faith-centred society. Dipan was a courageous publisher who dared to publish Avijit’s book, even when many heavyweight publishers shied away. Today, in Bangladesh’s progressive landscape, Avijit, Dipan and their fellow writers and publishers, who either died in machete attacks or were driven to exile, are pariah figures. Their contributions to the Bangladeshi progressive struggle are considered mere aberrations and blotted out systematically from the secular landscape. At their expense, the works of sycophantic shills, attuned to the ruling party’s ideology, are celebrated, and widely circulated.

The Bangladeshi state believes that meting out death penalties to Avijit and Dipan’s killers could ablute all the taint that besmirched its reputation. The state doesn’t want to be held responsible for its role in creating the circumstances for the machete-wielding Islamists to go on a murdering rampage. The death penalty is an inhumane, archaic form of punishment — a plaything for the illiberal state to play God. The problem of religious extremism that Bangladesh faces today is more like Hydra, a serpentine monster of Greek and Roman mythology which could not be killed by chopping off a few heads. Executing the convicted militants while not addressing deep structural problems such as the crisis of democracy, burgeoning authoritarianism, religious bigotry, misogynism, homophobia will hardly stop militants from carrying out future attacks. Maybe we shouldn’t even expect an authoritarian government to address these issues since fostering a pluralistic, tolerant and democratic society is not in its best interests. Rafida Ahmed Bonya emphasised this point in the most precise possible terms.

“Simply prosecuting a few foot-soldiers — and ignoring the rise and roots of extremism — does not mean justice for Avi’s death, nor for the deaths of the ‘bloggers, publishers, and homosexuals’ before and after him as part of the serial killing. That’s why this verdict will not bring peace to my family or theirs”.

When a publisher no longer faces any censorship in republishing Avijit Roy’s work; when the book vendors no longer dare to stop selling Avijit’s books; when government officials no longer blame martyred writers and publishers for their tragic demise; when journalists no longer face intimidation, when cartoonists no longer have to languish in jail for producing satirical works; when those in exile can return home and continue their work without fear; then, and only then will true justice be served.

 

 

 

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