A statement on the fifth death anniversary of Xulhaz-Tonoy and Bangladeshi queer realities

[READ BENGALI VERSION HERE]

“Song” is a queer community-based mobilizing platform that works to promote the rights of people of all sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics.

The statement was made jointly by Song and some of its members.

In 2021, Bangladesh is celebrating its golden jubilee as an independent nation, essentially possessing four stipulations- territory, sovereignty, citizens, and government. However, the violation of citizens’ fundamental constitutional rights and the absence of a properly elected government are naked truths present in the country. Like other dissenting communities in Bangladesh, the queer community is also going through apprehension due to existential crisis and breach of independence and constitutional rights. As evidenced by the World Press Freedom Index, the freedom of media in Bangladesh ranked 152 out of 180 countries.

In recent years, extrajudicial killings have become regular events in Bangladesh. The situation worsened to such a stage that the citizens, struggling in poverty, unemployment, and political crises, could not help but accept these as an irresistible reality. Between 2001 and mid-2020, a timeframe of nearly 20 years, extrajudicial law enforcement killed a total of 4,002 people, including 206 deaths just in the first seven months of 2020, amidst the Coronavirus pandemic. These death toll estimates confirm the number of people killed only by the state forces. Thanks to the frail judiciary, attacks by various terrorist and extremist forces, and the government agencies to inundate this number. It is understandable that, despite being extremely enraged, people are terrified to protest against these killings due to the Digital Security Act (DSA). On account of the state’s silence, the culture of impunity, and protracted justice, these killings by extremist groups and state agencies can be justifiable in the same list as extrajudicial killings.

It has been five long years since the two gay-rights activists, Xulhaz and Tonoy, of the first Bangladeshi LGBT+ magazine named “Roopbaan”, were hacked to death. However, we saw no progression towards the trials of this murder. Last year, Roopbaan blog posted an update of Xulhaz-Tonoy murder on their fourth death anniversary, stating that the Counter-Terrorism and Transitional Crime unit have issued a charge-sheet and the Special Anti-Terrorism Tribunal will take over the case. Mass media reports later proclaimed that the case was transferred to the Special Anti-Terrorism Tribunal in 2020. On 19 November 2020, the case charges were also framed. All convicts from the charge sheet of Xulhaz-Tonoy murder are members of the Ansarullah Bangla Team, and they were also accused of prior murders and terrorist attacks on bloggers, publishers, and human rights activists. Three judges took confessional testimony from 3 (three) convicts of Xulhaz-Tonoy murder on 22 February 2021 at the tribunal in Dhaka. Noting that primal convicts are still roaming free. Besides, the state has been oppressive towards other ongoing murder cases of dissident writers, bloggers, publishers, and human rights activists since 2013, and as per media reports, the state is also not cooperating with the demise’s family. It is also a matter of concern that only these people were not brutally murdered. Many of the deceased’s colleagues, dissent writers, and human rights activists were forced to leave the country for security concerns. We saw countless Bangladeshi nationals being exiled due to lack of justice, the government’s intolerant behavior, and the emergence of terrorist groups within the country.

We believe, Xulhaz-Tonoy murder should not be considered an isolated incident. From 2013, terrorist groups started to make a list of people, and this murder is the outcome of that targeted killings. Although state agencies were aware beforehand about the Ansarullah Bangla Team and their listed killing missions, the utmost indifference of the state resulted in these successive murders. Due to the global pressure for the onslaught of terrorist attacks, the present ruling government of Bangladesh began to track them. In 2018, the government passed the DSA, amending Section 5 of the Information and Technology Act to corner dissident progressive political forces. However, soon after that, the state began to abuse this act. Repression continues as it has in the past on people who think differently about the traditional politics of Bangladesh and progressive believers. Mushtaq Ahmed, a writer, was arrested under the DSA and died in prison without trial on 25 February 2021. Even one of the victim’s families’ members was detained implementing this Act, and to date, he is on bail as an accused. Corona pandemic has hit the low-income group the hardest, disrupting their basic needs due to imposed countrywide lockdown. Nevertheless, the government is irresponsible towards their health, medical, food, and housing, but actively arrests people who speak against their erroneous steps, enforcing the DSA.

We stand not only beside the queer community; instead, we are supporting the non-discriminatory, oppressed, downtrodden and persecuted community of Bangladesh. We surmise, if the judiciary’s independence is ensured, those attacks and murders by the state forces and terrorists will get their fair share from the state. Exiled individuals in any of these cases can also return to their own country. We are also assuming, Bangladesh’s achieved economic growth will crash down in the distant future, and the health, political, and social system will fall into an absolute crisis without holding people in power accountable and halting the malpractice enforced by the state.

In this situation, mainstream political parties of Bangladesh are unable to coordinate through online platforms or in-person events and field politics. Infringement on citizens’ civil and human rights, such as routined surveillance of personal communications by state intelligence agencies and publicized private conversations of activists and government antagonists by government-supported media, have occurred in the past. These violations are also preventing most queer organizations and their organizers from working collectively and safely for the greater community. Whereas some of the fellow organizers and organizations are seen to be too courageous in queer organizing. We feel that there is room for reconsideration of such organizational activities, taking account of collective responsibility, overall safety and security, and the adverse impact on the whole queer community. We believe that any kind of harm to anyone in our community directly affects all of us. Therefore, queer organizations and organizers have the moral obligation to ensure the safety and security of their community members.

We are living a life full of concern and apprehension for the government’s indirect support of Xulhaz-Tonoy assassination and the state’s indifference to the trial of this murder. Every year, we see that many queer organizations initiate events to commemorate Xulhaz-Tonoy murder on 25 April. We are in solidarity and showing our respect and compassion with them. However, we assume that creating a well-organized and cohesive queer environment will be more fruitful, focusing on their sacrifice rather than mourning for them. We believe celebrating the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia 2021 and Pride month in upcoming days by ensuring the safety and security of the overall community will be conducive to our overall well-being. In the past, many queer ally organizations and individuals have also initiated various programs focusing on these two events, which could have been nothing but detrimental for the whole community. Therefore, we humbly request that if this year queer allies plan for any community-centered activities, they should inform and gather opinions beforehand from community members and leaders and emphasize more on our overall safety and security. Furthermore, we also request all queer members, organizations and organizers to observe and consider the countrywide political, economic, social and religious situation prior to making any decision. Keeping our community folks safe and secure is our foremost responsibility, and we cannot afford to forget that.

One way to be mindful of the security of community members could be, perhaps, to discuss our plans and security measures with fellow organizers from different groups and avenues. It is also a good idea to think about our audiences and decide what kinds of support and visibility can serve our political needs in this climate. Let us be careful about how we invite and work with allies and take the time to assess whether we have the voice and agency to navigate through this allyship to draw boundaries and place restrictions for the larger purpose of security and well-being for queer folks, when and should the time come. We are offering all of these suggestions from our end to hold ourselves and our fellow organizers accountable for our well-being and sustainable action.

Finally, we are empathetic, and our heartfelt condolences to all colleagues, friends, and well-wishers of Xulhaz and Tonoy. This assassination has shifted tremendously many lives of queer folks, which they did not deserve as citizens of an independent nation. Besides, many queer folks were forced to leave Bangladesh, putting them into mental trauma caused by that cruel event. We want to show our respect for people who have sacrificed so much of their lives to work for this community. Despite the memory of that brutal murder, many leave their country, family, society, language, and culture behind and forced to adapt to a foreign environment, which often leads to difficult situations. Since the assassination of Xulhaz and Tonoy, the Bangladeshi queer community has not only lost two activists, but the whole queer movement has come to a standstill along with indescribable sufferings. We are also responsible for showing endearment towards liveth queer folks because their contribution is no less. Therefore, organizations and organizers need to support those in exile or still in the country because they really deserve this care from us.