A prominent American blogger of Bangladeshi origin has been hacked to death with machetes by unidentified assailants in Dhaka after he allegedly received threats from Islamists.
The body of Avijit Roy, founder of the Mukto-Mona (Free-mind) blog site – which champions liberal secular writing in the Muslim-majority nation – was found covered in blood after an attack that also left his wife critically wounded.
“He died as he was brought to the hospital. His wife was also seriously wounded. She has lost a finger,” local police chief Sirajul Islam said.
The couple were on a bicycle rickshaw, returning from a book fair, when two assailants stopped and dragged them on to the pavement before striking them with machetes, local media reported, citing witnesses.
Hundreds of protesters rallied in Dhaka to denounce the murder, chanting slogans including “we want justice” and “raise your voice against militants”.
Imran Sarker, the head of the Bangladesh bloggers’ association, said the protests would continue until those responsible were apprehended. “Avijit’s killing once again proved that there is a culture of impunity in the country,” Sarker told Agence France-Presse. “The government must arrest the killers in 24 hours or face non-stop protests.”
Roy, who was 42, is the second Bangladeshi blogger to have been murdered in two years and the fourth writer to have been attacked since 2004.
Hardline Islamist groups have long demanded the public killing of atheist bloggers and sought new laws to deal with writing critical of Islam.
“Roy suffered fatal wounds in the head and died from bleeding … after being brought to the hospital,” Dr Sohel Ahmed told reporters.
Police have launched an inquiry and recovered the machetes used in the attack but could not confirm whether Islamists were behind the incident.
But Roy’s father said the writer, a US citizen, had received a number of “threatening” emails and messages on social media from hardliners unhappy with his writing. “He was a secular humanist and has written about 10 books,” Ajoy Roy told AFP.His most famous work was Biswasher Virus (Virus of Faith).
The Center for Inquiry, a US-based charity promoting free thought, said it was “shocked and heartbroken” by the brutal murder. “Dr Roy was a true ally, a courageous and eloquent defender of reason, science, and free expression, in a country where those values have been under heavy attack,” it said in a statement.
Roy’s killing also triggered strong condemnation from his fellow writers and publishers, who lamented the growing religious conservatism and intolerance in Bangladesh.
“The attack on Roy and his wife, Rafida Ahmed, is outrageous. We strongly protest this attack and are deeply concerned about the safety of writers,” said Sarker.
Pinaki Bhattacharya, a fellow blogger and friend of Roy, claimed one of the country’s largest online book retailers was being openly threatened for selling Roy’s books.
“In Bangladesh the easiest target is an atheist. An atheist can be attacked and murdered,” he wrote on Facebook.
Atheist blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider was hacked to death in 2013 by members of a little-known Islamist militant group, triggering nationwide protests by tens of thousands of secular activists.
“The pattern of the killing appeared to be the same as that of previous attack on a celebrated writer,” said Shiblee Noman, assistant commissioner of Dhaka police. “It seems it was carried out by a reactionary fundamentalist group.”
After Haider’s death, Bangladesh’s hardline Islamist groups started to protest against other campaigning bloggers, calling a series of nationwide strikes to demand their deaths, accusing them of blasphemy.
The secular government of the Bangladeshi prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, reacted by arresting some atheist bloggers.
The government also blocked about a dozen websites and blogs to stem the furore over blasphemy, as well as stepping up security for the bloggers.
On Friday Sarker said: “Communal and militant groups have threatened the very spirit of our nation. Yet instead of crushing them, the government was keen on appeasing them by arresting secular bloggers.”
Noman said police were investigating a tweet by the pro-Islamist group Ansar Bangla Seven that appeared to celebrate Roy’s murder.
“Target Down here in Bangladesh,” the group tweeted from the @AnsarBn7 handle.
The US embassy to Bangladesh offered its condolences to Roy’s family and said it was providing consular assistance. Roy’s wife, who is also a blogger, was moved to a clinic for further treatment on Friday.
Bangladesh is the world’s fourth-largest Muslim majority nation with Muslims making up some 90 per cent of the country’s 160 million people.
A tribunal has recently handed down a series of verdicts against leading Islamists and others for crimes committed during the war of independence from Pakistan in 1971.