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The Story Behind The US Writer Macheted To Death In Bangladesh

Avijit Roy, an outspoken Bangladeshi-American atheist and political critic, was killed on Thursday by Islamists who killed him with machetes in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka.

While his death has attracted plenty of attention as a U.S. citizen, the circumstances surrounding his fate tell a bigger story about free speech and extremism in Bangladesh.

Roy was born in Bangladesh but lived in the United States, where he ran a website called “Mukto-Mona” (“Free Mind”). Born to a Hindu family, he was an avowed atheist who published books with titles such as “The Virus Of Faith” and admired Richard Dawkins. In a country where “secularism” is an official national principle, but the constitution identifies Islam as the state religion, Roy was constantly on the sidelines of an increasingly heated national debate.

He had received death threats from numerous Islamist groups over the course of his career. Other activists, generally known by the label “atheist bloggers,” have been targeted and killed in recent years as well.

A contentious government body is at the heart of the violence: a war crimes tribunal investigating atrocities in the country’s bloody 1971 war for independence from Pakistan. The tribunal was one of the key campaign promises of the Awami League, the political party that has been in power since 2008.

Several prominent figures, including members of the leading Islamic group Jamaat-e-Islami, were convicted by the tribunal in 2012 and 2013. The court sentenced one Jamaat leader, Abdul Quader Molla, to life imprisonment in 2013. In response, enormous protests erupted demanding that Molla be sentenced to death.

The “atheist bloggers,” including Roy, were among the most outspoken Bangladeshis agitating for Molla’s execution, in what became known as the “Shahbag protests” after the Dhaka neighborhood where they began. Ahmed Rajib Haider, another one of the bloggers, died just over two years ago in connection with the protests: like Roy, he was hacked to death with machetes by Islamist students.

Last week, Roy was attacked on a street corner near Dhaka University while on a visit together with his wife. His wife, Rafida Ahmed Banna, was seriously wounded in the attack. They had attended a book festival earlier in the day.

The proximity to the university campus, a hotbed of Islamist activism, suggests that extremist student groups may have been involved.

In an article that he filed for publication with American secular organization Center for Inquiry shortly before his death, Roy described a man named Farabi Shafiur Rahman who had repeatedly threatened his life online. Since Roy died, Bangladeshi authorities have arrested Rahman in connection with the murder, though he has denied involvement.

Follow Ivan Plis on Twitter

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