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Fighting words with machetes

Hacked to death with machetes, just for writing what they think - that's the fate Bangladesh's bloggers face. Ananya was told he would be next and he knows better than others: "When they target a person, they kill."

Every time Ananya writes, he risks his life.

His friend was hacked to death with machetes, his father attacked in the street and he's been told he is next. And all because the Bangladeshi blogger, like his friend and his father before him, writes what he thinks.

Sentiments as simple as: "I believe every human being is free from [when they are] born. So he or she is free to choose, judge, believe or not believe," have led to Ananya being threatened by radical Islamist groups, who interpret his words as offending Islam.

Ananya is critical about religious fundamentalism in his blog posts, but he does not specifically refer to Islam. Still, Islamist fundamentalists in Bangladesh have included Ananya on a death list of 84 bloggers, who they intend to target for "justice" as self-appointed defenders of the faith. Nine Bangladeshi bloggers from list have already been killed - three in this year alone.

And even if they were not the target of extremists, bloggers might instead incur the wrath of the government: a blasphemy law stating that any "'deliberate' or 'malicious' intent to 'hurt religious sentiments'" can be punished through imprisonment. Bangladeshi blogger Asif Mohiuddin for example was arrested in 2013 for "blasphemous" posts and imprisoned.

The right to believe?

That sparked protests – but mainly among fellow "free thinkers". Where such oppression might have sparked outrage in other parts of the world, these issues in Bangladesh have largely been ignored by the public. This is because in Bangladesh they are labeled atheists - perhaps not a problem elsewhere, but "nastik", the Bengali word for atheist, is defamatory.

Can't believe it? Here's what people on the streets say:

Survey in Dhaka: what do people think about atheists?

Bangladesh markets itself as a secular state, but in reality things seem to be different. The country's constitution calls Islam the state religion and prescribes equal rights for other religions. However, it does not mention the rights of those who are non-religious, or atheist.

But it is not only in Bangladesh where people are persecuted if they are believed to be atheists. "In effect, you can be put to death for expressing atheism in 13 countries," according to an International Humanists and Ethical Union report. Blasphemy is punishable in even more countries: "Expressing 'blasphemy' or offending religious feelings are still a crime in 55 countries, can mean prison in 39 of those countries and are punishable by death in six countries."

In this context, ideological theory clashes with vivid reality: in theory, freedom of speech and expression are considered to be a human right. But in reality, Ananya was told online: "If you want to live, just shut your mouth."

Death threats on social media

Once they are published, the bloggers' words might be immortal, but the writers themselves are not.

Underground Islamist groups including Ansar Bangla 8 and Ansarullah Bangla Team - assumed to be connected, and influenced by Al-Qaeda - have claimed responsibility for some of the murders that have taken place and are suspected of being behind the others.

These organizations, like Ansarullah Bangla Team, an offshoot of the Jamaat-e-Islami political party, are very active online. They wage a cyber war against secular bloggers using social media to disseminate threats and mobilize their supporters as well as posting photos from the scenes of the killings on Facebook and Twitter.

It was also on Facebook where Ananya was named as the next to be killed. "When they target a person, they kill," says the 24-year old. And he should know.

Self-protection over police protection

To protect himself from attacks, Ananya wears a helmet whenever he leaves his house - he fears a sudden and deadly machete blow to the head.

Such measures seem to the only ones open to the bloggers to protect themselves.

"It is also his duty to secure himself," says Dhaka's deputy police officer Krishna Pada Roy, adding that the police would of course help keep Ananya and the other bloggers safe, but that it was up to them to minimize the risk. "If you have a building there must be a door and that door should be locked. If it is open, you should not blame police for any theft."

Shantanu Majumder, associate professor at the Department of Political Science of the University of Dhaka, thinks that officials are not doing more as they don't want to be labeled anti-Islamic and worry about the public perception by potential voters.

Why being openly secular can get you killed

"The question arises whether Islam is such a fragile religion, that the writings of a few 'derailed' atheists would break it," Bengali social scientist Raihan Jamil writes on bdnews24. He points out that Islam has existed for around 1,400 years and is the second leading religion with one in five people Muslim.

He adds: "The founder of Islam, Prophet Muhammed, faced the harshest of criticisms about Islam during his own lifetime. Neither he, nor did his followers go around killing people at will. I am sure they had that option if they chose to. But as a religion of peace, the prophet won more hearts by peaceful dialogue and treaties than by war."

Although it is this teaching of Islam to which the vast majority of Muslims adhere, fundamentalist groups are still able to strike fear into the hearts of many. It is holding back some bloggers and writers - understandably. Many of those on the death list stopped writing following the murders of blogger Avijit Roy in February 2015, Washiquir Rahman in March 2015 and Ananta Bijoy Das in May 2015.

Ananya has stopped writing his blog and quit his job as a newspaper columnist. But he continues to post his opinions on Facebook: "I will not stop writing, it's what I love. And I am hopeful that one day this country will change."

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