Murders force Bangladeshi gay rights activists underground
DHAKA, Bangladesh – Xulhaz Mannan was a rallying figure for Bangladesh's marginalized but increasingly outspoken lesbian, gay, and transgender community, but his brutal murder has dealt a huge blow to the movement and forced some of its leaders underground.
Mannan, who founded Bangladesh's first magazine for gays and lesbians which he used to launch a vibrant rights movement in the deeply conservative, Muslim-majority country, was hacked to death on Monday, April 25, along with a fellow activist.
Friends and fellow campaigners this week rushed to remove all trace of their activism from social media sites, fearing they could themselves become targets.
"Everyone felt safe because of him. But he is gone, so everyone is scared," one fellow activist who helped set up the magazine told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"I'm sure everyone (is now) facing the same devastating situation."
A group of unidentified attackers carrying machetes and guns murdered Mannan and Mahbub Tonoy after gaining access to his Dhaka apartment on Monday night.
It was the latest in a series of killings of secular bloggers and liberal activists in Bangladesh that have caused global outrage, and sparked fears that the attackers are expanding their range of targets to include openly gay people.
Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) has said it killed the men, accusing them of working to "promote homosexuality" in Bangladesh.
The government, however, says homegrown Islamists were responsible. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Monday blamed the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its Islamist ally, Jamaat-e-Islami.
Kyle Knight, who works on LGBT issues for Human Rights Watch, condemned the government for failing to protect activists and said the murders had stoked fears in the small community.
"In recent months LGBT activists had been receiving threats from extremists, and had taken steps to secure themselves – including by going into hiding," he said in an email response to AFP.
"But discretion on the part of LGBT activists and individuals in the face of persistent abuse and heightened security concerns should not be confused with abolition – indeed some courageous individuals have already indicated their intent to re-double their efforts."
'A huge setback'
Mannan co-founded Bangladesh's first lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) magazine Roopbaan in 2014.
Gays and lesbians suffer discrimination and often violence in Bangladesh, where homosexual acts are punishable by a maximum life term, although prosecutions are rare.
Many are forced to hide their sexual identity and live double lives for fear of reprisals.
"When the country's first magazine on LGBT issues, Roopbaan, was published, the reaction from the majority was harsh. But things are changing; very slowly, but steadily," Mannan later wrote in a piece for the Guardian's website.
He cited a rise in online activism and the government's decision to recognize a transgender community known as hijras as a separate gender category in official documents.
In the same year he and his fellow activists organised a "rainbow rally" on April 14 as part of Bengali New Year celebrations.
This year, however, police banned the rally citing security concerns after Mannan and his friends received death threats via a Facebook page believed to have been set up by Islamists.
Four LGBT activists were briefly detained as they tried to defy the ban and Mannan spent the day trying to get them freed.
"XM (Xulhaz Mannan) never liked to take any credit. But almost everything we did was his dream," said Roopbaan's co-founder.
Since the murders, many fellow activists have switched off their mobile phones and deactivated their Facebook pages.
It is unclear whether the magazine, which had struggled to stay afloat financially in recent months, will survive – although most believe the gay rights movement will eventually get back on its feet.
"He was a brave man who touched many hearts," one of Bangladesh's leading transgender activists told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"His death is a huge setback – at least for the time being." – Rappler.com