April 25, 2017 at 11:35 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Bangladesh activists remembered on first anniversary of their murders

Xulhaz Mannan, gay news, Washington Blade

Xulhaz Mannan, a prominent Bangladeshi LGBT activist, was hacked to death in his home on April 25, 2016. (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

The U.S. Agency for International Development on Tuesday honored a former employee and prominent Bangladeshi LGBT rights advocate who was hacked to death a year ago.

Acting USAID Administrator Wade Warren and Gloria Steele, who is the agency’s acting assistant director for Asia, are among those who spoke at a ceremony at USAID’s downtown Washington headquarters that honored Xulhaz Mannan.

“Xulhaz was a beacon of light not just to his community but to the world,” said Steele. “He was a skilled and courageous advocate for human rights, who sought to shape a society that was more diverse, inclusive and safe for everyone.”

U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh Marcia Bernicat described Mannan as “selfless, loving” and “inspirational” in an op-ed that appeared in Bangladeshi media on Tuesday.

Mannan, who was the publisher and co-founder of Roopbaan, Bangladesh’s first LGBT magazine, was working for USAID when members of Ansar-al-Islam, a branch of al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent that operates in the country, hacked him and his friend, Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, to death inside his Dhaka apartment on April 25, 2016. Mannan’s nephew, Raj Islam, who is a member of the Virginia Beach (Va.) Human Rights Commission, told the Washington Blade less than two months later the militants who attacked his uncle “took both of (his) eyes out in front of” his elderly mother.

Former President Obama and then-USAID Administrator Gayle Smith are among those who offered their condolences to Mannan’s family in the wake of his murder. USAID subsequently placed a brick with Mannan’s name on it near the entrance to its D.C. headquarters.

Mannan worked at the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka for eight years before he joined USAID in September 2015. His name has also been added to a plaque inside the State Department that honors Foreign Service personnel who have been killed.

Acting State Department spokesperson Mark Toner on Tuesday described Mannan as a “beloved member of our Embassy Dhaka family and a courageous advocate for human rights” as he acknowledged the first anniversary of his death during a press briefing with reporters.

“We remain committed to the principles that were so important to Xulhaz, and we will continue to support all those who work on behalf of tolerance of human rights in Bangladesh and around the world,” said Toner.

The Human Rights Campaign this week is hosting a photo exhibit in honor of Mannan and Tonoy that highlights LGBT Bangladeshis. Hampton Roads Pride — which honored Islam last year — on Tuesday acknowledged the murders in an Instagram post.

“This gruesome tragedy highlights the treacherous global landscape for LGBT people and the deadly threats faced by those who have the courage to come out in repressed societies and cultures,” it reads.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on Tuesday abruptly cancelled a meeting with Bangladeshi Ambassador to the U.S. Mohammad Ziauddin that had been scheduled to take place later that day. Bowser spokesperson LaToya Foster said the mayor made the decision after the Washington Blade contacted her office and asked if she was aware of the murders of Mannan and Tonoy and whether she planned to discuss them with Ziauddin.

Bangladeshi authorities have made ‘no arrests’

Mannan and Tonoy are among the activists, secular academics, writers, bloggers and members of religious minority groups who have been killed by Islamists since early 2015.

The U.S. on June 30, 2016, designated Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent as a terrorist group. Bangladeshi authorities dismissed the so-called Islamic State’s claim of responsibility for a terrorist attack at a bakery in Dhaka’s upscale Gulshan neighborhood three days later that left 22 civilians and two police officers dead.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her government have come under increased criticism from those who feel it has not done enough to effectively respond to terrorism in the predominantly Muslim country and protect human rights.

Media reports indicate Bangladeshi authorities have not completed their investigation into the murders of Mannan and Tonoy. The Dhaka Tribune, a Bangladeshi newspaper, on Tuesday reported investigators and government officials have not spoken with Mannan’s family since his death.

“We have no arrests made yet in connection with the murders,” a Bangladeshi LGBT rights activist told the Blade earlier this week.

Islam told the Blade on Tuesday during a telephone interview from his home in Virginia Beach, Va., that his family is “still mourning and still making sure his work is moving forward under the radar” because of the increased attention LGBT-specific issues have received in Bangladesh because of Mannan’s murder. Islam said “a lot” of LGBT Bangladeshis have reached out to Roopbaan over the last year and have even returned to their homeland “to do his work.”

“The battle is still fighting on,” Islam told the Blade. “We aren’t even close to winning the war, but every little bit of PR, every little bit of anything that’s out there supporting the LGBT community (helps.)”

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

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