April 2: A Bangladesh high court today upheld the capital punishment for two militants for hacking to death Rajib Haider, a blogger whose murder in 2013 set off a chain of savage attacks on liberal writers and secular activists.
"I came to know that Rajib's killers got the maximum punishment from the high court today.... I hope the killers of other liberals would also be brought to justice very soon," said Ajoy Roy, father of Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi-American blogger slain by machete-wielding zealots two years after Rajib was killed.
Redwanul Azad Rana, one of the convicts whose death penalty was confirmed today, is an accused in the killings of both the bloggers, Rajib and Avijit. Rana and Faisal Bin Nayem, the other accused facing the gallows now, were students of a top private university.
The death sentence for two of the accused and jail terms for six others served to underscore another element: the slow pace at which the wheels of justice turn in the subcontinent and the cracks through which many escape exemplary punishment.
Although the Sheikh Hasina government has a publicly declared "zero tolerance policy" towards religious extremism, there have been allegations from liberal sections of society that the investigations into the murders have not gathered steam.
"It is good that people are getting arrested and chargesheets are also being filed.... But the process of bringing the culprits to justice is taking too long. Unless a process of speedy trial is worked out through a tribunal, a strong message to the fundamentalist forces cannot be sent," said Muntassir Mamoon, a historian and secularist in Bangladesh.
The high court upheld the death penalty for the two members of the banned Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT). The six others were awarded varying jail terms. The verdict came 16 months after a fast-track tribunal handed down the death sentences to the two members of ABT, which has had connections with al Qaida, for killing Rajib, who was an active member of Ganajagaran Mancha.
"But it has taken more than four years... I don't know how much time it would take if the matter now goes to the Supreme Court," Mamoon said.
Bangladeshi media reported that Najim Uddin, Rajib's father, has been unable to fathom why the punishment for the six other accused was limited to jail terms. "The government's zero-tolerance policy against militancy has not been reflected in the court's verdict. It has been proven that those who have killed my son are militants - educated militants. But they did not get the maximum penalty," he was quoted as saying.
The six included the ABT's so-called "spiritual guru", Mufti Jashim Uddin Rahmani. He was sentenced to five years for provoking the students to kill Rajib, 35.
An architect, Rajib was killed near his home in Dhaka's Mirpur area. Days before his death, he had begun a movement demanding the maximum punishment for the 1971 war criminals.
Since 2013 and the start of the Shahbag Movement - which was led by members of the Mancha - that envisioned Bangladesh as a humane and secular nation, the targets of attackers have been free-thinking and open-minded people.
"The biggest challenge facing our country are the radical forces who treat liberals, secular people and those belonging to other religions as their main enemy. These forces are provoking young minds and they have to be tackled," said writer and rights activist Shahriar Kabir.
Police records indicate that at least 40 people have been killed in such attacks on individuals since February 2013. The phenomenon has been linked to the rise of radical forces, which started influencing young members of affluent families.
Investigations into these killings are at various stages and several prominent members of Bangladeshi civil society believe that the culprits should be brought to justice without wasting time.
The probe into last July's attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery - the first organised act of terror in Bangladesh - also revealed that students with exposure to western education were getting involved in terror activities on the pretext of protecting their religion.
Besides observing that people were free to express their views on religion, the court had a word of caution for parents and asked them to be more responsible and keep their children "on the right path".
The past few months have witnessed several operations by the Hasina government in which terrorists were hunted down.
In recent weeks, Bangladesh has carried out at least four security operations, including in Sylhet where army commandos were called in to neutralise militants after a four-day stand-off. The operations, lasting over a week in Sylhet, Comilla and Maulvibazaar, resulted in at least 22 deaths. The government has also launched an awareness campaign urging parents to keep an eye on their children.
"All these things are fine.... But finally, civil society also has a larger role to play in fighting radical forces. That is not happening as most of us do not want to take the risk. The nation is paying the price," said Masuda Bhatti, a political scientist.