This statement was originally published on globalvoices.org on 12 May 2017.
Just over a year ago, Xulhaz Mannan, the editor of Bangladesh's first LGBT magazine, and LGBT activist Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy were hacked to death in Bangladesh's capital Dhaka.
On April 25, 2016, they joined the long list of secular thinkers and religious minorities who have been murdered in Bangladesh since 2013 (see Global Voices special coverage).
Ansar al-Islam Bangladesh (Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent) claimed responsibility for their murders in a tweet. The police have so far arrested two people in connection with the murders, but more than a year after the killings, investigators still have not issued charges against them.
Advocates in South Asia and around the world contended that Mannan was a clear target for Islamist extremists because of the continued criminalization of homosexual relations and intolerance toward the LGBT community in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh penal code article 377 criminalises sexual activities "against the order of nature", including consensual homosexual acts such as fellatio and anal penetration, with the most severe possible punishment being life in prison. The provision was introduced by British colonial authorities in the 19th century and was used as the model for sodomy laws in many other British colonies.
On the first anniversary of the killings, Boys of Bangladesh, the largest network of self-identified Bangladeshi gay men from home and abroad, launched a Bangla-language blog called Dhee to commemorate the victims and raise awareness of the plight of the LGBT community in the conservative Muslim-majority nation.
The literal meaning of "Dhee" in Bangla is talent or intelligence. The blog is part of a larger advocacy project for lesbians which includes a comic strip released in September 2015 that tells The Story of Dhee, a fictional young lesbian discovering her sexuality. Over the past year, the Dhee project has also hosted awareness events on gender and sexuality in seven towns in Bangladesh.
The blog features pieces by members of the LGBT community remembering Mannan and Tonoy and explaining the fear they now live with since their deaths. The authors are kept anonymous, and even the email address of the commenters are withheld for safety reasons. A statement on the blog reads:
The brutal killings of Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy have directly or indirectly affected a lot of activists and ordinary people. This blog archives their experience and comments in text/audio/images and video formats. Many people close to Mannan and Tonoy responded to our call to submit texts and images and expressed their feelings and memories about them. You can catch a glimpse of the current confused state of the LGBT movement in Bangladesh on Dhee blog.
'Reality came sinking into my heart like a heavy stone'
Xulhaz Mannan worked as a foreign service national for USAID in Bangladesh and was the co-founder and publisher of Bangladesh's first LGBT magazine Roopbaan (see Global Voices report). The magazine was launched in January 2014.
Before the publication, the LGBT movement in Bangladesh was mostly underground and led by a handful of people who connected with each other on social media. Shakhawat Hossain of Boys of Bangladesh wrote on news and commentary site Wire.in:
Mannan believed in visibility. All his life he worked to provide a safe space for people to come out and be who they were. He opened up his house, spent all his earnings and dedicated his spare time towards mobilising the community and giving us a sense of belonging. He had a unique way of encouraging us to speak up and be assertive of our rights - of our right to love. How ironical it is for the merchant of love to succumb to such hatred and violence.
Tonoy used his theatre experience to produce and act in various short dramas to spread awareness about LGBT issues.
On Dhee blog, one anonymous blogger recalled his experience learning of their deaths:
On 25 March 2016, I last entered Xulhaz's house to attend a birthday party. […]
He was killed one month later.
I contemplate it sometimes. How many days [since the murders]? Ten days? Fifteen weeks? Siz months? After how many more months until the anniversary?
During the first months, I was in a trance. I couldn't fathom how this would impact my life. When I finally realised what had happened, the reality came sinking into my heart like a heavy stone. My whole universe had changed. A storm had destroyed everything.
Another blogger wrote about working with Mannan on the LGBT magazine Roopbaan:
Like any other magazine, the publishing of the second edition of the 'Roopbaan' magazine was supposed to be lot less complicated than the first. But bad luck had engulfed us like an octopus. The prime minister had learnt about 'Roopbaan' in a ministerial meeting and she was unhappy about it. The daily 'Bhorer Kagoz' published a report that the detective branch of the police was looking for the people behind the magazine. The printing press, which printed the first edition of 'Roopbaan' magazine, told us the next day that they were unable to print the magazine in the future. I was literally heartbroken. Not that 'Roopbaan' wouldn't be printed, but out of fear of the police. Hearing my doorbell, I would cringe in fear.
He also wrote how Mannan stood beside him during those trying times:
Don't make any trouble if police come looking for you. Don't deny anything. Go to the police station with them. Tell them my name. Tell them that Xulhaz is the kingpin of this magazine.
One person wrote about a recent experience that showed authorities' negative attitude toward LGBT people:
Last week I went to a round-table discussion on the gender-equity law. The government representative from the other side of the table warned me that we cannot do anything that goes against section 377. To deal with the threats against LGBT people they don't even want to hear the word LGBT. Everything seems to be so empty now and the future looks bleak. Don't you deserve at least a bit of respect from the state?
'What kind of homeland is this, where there is no place for me?'
Bangladeshi society can be intolerant of LGBT people. A person on Dhee blog wrote how Tonoy faced trouble at home because of his sexual orientation:
The situation at Tonoy's home was different. They knew that their boy was a bit different, not like other boys in the neighbourhood. He did not want to suppress this difference. He used to have a liking for feminine things, engaged in cross-dressing and he suffered domestic abuse because of that.
Mannan and Tonoy's murders struck fear into the heart of Bangladesh's LGBT community. Many activists have now closed their Facebook accounts and changed phone numbers in an effort to hide their identities for their own safety. A female activist explained on Dhee blog:
After that tragic incident, people close to me told me to leave the country. I dreamt about a lot of things since my childhood, but none involved leaving my homeland, never. I was a good student since childhood. I graduated from Dhaka University, the country's leading public university. I have been involved in many social services and now am at a decent job. I always wanted to do something for the country, contribute to the economy, working for the poor. But how can I live in this country where there is no guarantee of my life? How can I live in this country, where if I were to be killed people would rejoice over a cup of tea that there is one less LGBT person? What kind of homeland is this, where there is no place for me?
By August 2016, investigators had identified five suspects who they say took part in the killings. The police have arrested two of them, who have since testified under Section 164 of the penal code.
But after more than a year since Mannan and Tonoy's deaths, police have failed to submit charges despite having made these arrests, and having stated that they "are quite sure who did it." The court has granted them 12 extensions since the arrests. Most recently, the report and the charge sheet of the investigation were supposed to have been submitted on May 8, 2017, but the date has once again been postponed. The new submission has been rescheduled for June 6, 2017.