April 30, 2016 at 12:21 am EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Kerry urges Bangladesh to investigate murders of LGBT activists

Xulhas Mannan, gay news, Washington Blade

U.S. Agency for International Development employees pay tribute to Xulhas Mannan at Circle Bistro in Northwest Washington on April 29, 2016. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday urged Bangladesh’s government to thoroughly investigate the murder of two prominent LGBT activists.

The State Department said on Friday that Kerry told Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina the U.S. would offer “support for the investigation” into the deaths of Xulhaz Mannan and Tanay Mojumdar.

Kerry and Hasina spoke three days after a group of men hacked Mannan and Mojumdar to death with machetes inside an apartment building in the country’s capital of Dhaka.

Mannan launched Roopbaan — the country’s first LGBT magazine that shares its name with a Bangladeshi advocacy group — in 2014. He worked for the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka for eight years before joining the U.S. Agency for International Development last September.

“We extend our condolences to Mannan and Mojumdar’s families, friends and community,” the National Gay and Lesbian Journalists Association told the Washington Blade on Thursday in a statement. “Mannan’s death highlights the danger out journalists face covering our community in countries where that is inherently dangerous. NLGJA hopes a thorough government investigation will be conducted, and that this incident will serve as a reminder to others how vital both journalism and providing fair and accurate coverage of LGBT issues remains.”

Several dozen USAID employees gathered at a D.C. restaurant on Friday to pay tribute to Mannan. Additional memorials are scheduled to take place in London and Paris over the weekend.

Murders ‘clear indication of what everybody felt before’

Advocates with whom the Blade has spoken in recent days said the murders of Mannan and Mojumdar underscore the anti-LGBT violence, persecution and discrimination that is commonplace in Bangladesh.

A close friend of Mannan with whom the Blade spoke earlier this week said Roopbaan cancelled a “Rainbow Rally” that was to have taken place during a Bengali New Year celebration in Dhaka on April 14 because Islamists had threatened to attack participants.

Mannan’s friend said that Bangladeshi intelligence officials called Mannan the night before the march and told them to cancel it. Police on April 14 arrested four young LGBT rights advocates who had gathered in the area where the “Rainbow Rally” was to have taken place.

Consensual same-sex sexual relations also remain illegal in Bangladesh.

“Monday’s attack was just a really clear indication of what everybody felt before,” Michelle Kissenkoetter, director of the International Federation for Human Rights’ Asia Bureau, told the Blade on Friday during a telephone interview from Paris. “There was absolute fear and tension and particular for the activists.”

Kissenkoetter, who was recently in Bangladesh, said LGBT Bangladeshis have been looking for “safe houses” in Dhaka in order to “leave their homes and to be in a shelter because they’re concerned of attacks.” She told the Blade that foreign diplomats have offered support to local LGBT activists.

“There were absolutely people just wanting to get out,” said Kissenkoetter.

A handful of LGBT Bangladeshis with whom the Blade has spoken in recent days have also asked about ways they can leave the country.

Bangladesh targeting journalists, human rights activists

The murders of Mannan and Mojumdar took place two days after members of the so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility for the hacking death of Rezaul Karim Siddique, a university professor, in the northwestern part of the country. Other secular academics, writers and bloggers and members of religious minority groups have also been killed by Islamists in Bangladesh since early 2015.

The State Department said that Kerry “condemned other incidents in a recent spate of violence” when he spoke with Hasina on Thursday. A readout of their conversation further noted that Kerry “urged Prime Minister Hasina to ensure a thorough investigation of all of these incidents, and to redouble law enforcement efforts to prevent future attacks and protect those who are at risk.”

Kissenkoetter told the Blade there was a “much more palpable sense of anxiety” among Bangladeshis on her most recent trip to the country.

“This (the murders of Mannan and Mojumdar) just raised it a couple of notches,” she said. “But I can tell you that this was already a big part of how people were seeing their day-to-day.”

Bangladeshi police on April 16 arrested Shafik Rehman, a prominent magazine editor, on allegations that he was part of a plot to kill Hasina’s son who lives in the U.S. Kissenkoetter told the Blade that authorities have targeted other journalists who criticize the government.

Hasina earlier this week accused the opposition Bangladesh National Party and the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami group of murdering Mannan and Mojumdar. She made this allegation hours before Ansar-al-Islam, the Bangladeshi branch of al-Qaida, claimed responsibility.

Xulhaz Mannan, gay news, Washington Blade

Xulhaz Mannan (Photo courtesy of Bangladesh Against Homophobia)

Investigators are reportedly using footage from surveillance cameras near the apartment building in which Mannan and Mojumdar were killed to identify potential suspects.

The Dhaka Tribune reported on Saturday that Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told reporters three people have been identified in connection with the murders.

Authorities have yet to make any arrests.

Kissenkoetter told the Blade that the Bangladeshi government has done nothing to respond to the murders of academics, writers, bloggers and religious minorities “because it gives them a perfect excuse to say that, ‘Oh there’s some insecurity and we need much more restrictive laws, we need much more support with surveillance.’”

“They are using that surveillance and restrictive legislation to attack the society, left-leaning political activists and the like,” she said.

Mannan’s friend expressed doubt that the government would “do anything” to investigate the murders.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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