Dhaka, Bangladesh A Bangladeshi court has sentenced six members of a banned group to death and acquitted two others in connection with the murder of two LGBTQ rights activists five years ago.
Xulhaz Mannan was the editor of Bangladesh’s first and only gay rights magazine, Roopban. Mahbub Rabby Tonoy was his friend and collaborator.
The two were hacked to death on April 25, 2016 in their apartment in the capital Dhaka by the men of Ansar al-Islam, a group that was banned by the government of Bangladesh the previous year. Officials say the group is a local partner of the al-Qaeda group.
Amid strict security, Judge Md Majibur Rahman of the Special Anti-Terrorism Tribunal handed down the verdict in the presence of four of the eight accused in a packed courtroom in Dhaka.
Those sentenced to death include former army officer Syed Ziaul Haque Zia, who according to officials is the head of the banned group.
The other five convicted are Akram Hossain, Md Mozammel Hossain alias Saimon, Md Sheikh Abdullah, Arafat Rahman and Asadullah.
Zia and Akram are on the run and have been tried as refugees, while two other suspects – Sabbirul Hoque Chowdhury and Zunaid Ahmed – have been acquitted.
Pronunciation ‘to set an example’
The six, with guns and hijackers, forced themselves into Mannan’s home in the Kalabagan area in the middle of Dhaka, killing him and Tonoy.
During the sentencing hearing, Judge Rahman said the sentence could “set an example” that Bangladesh does not tolerate “militancy or terrorism in any form”.
Five of the convicts were already sentenced to death in February for the murder of a blogger in 2015 and a publisher who was hacked to death in separate incidents.
Mannan’s brother, Minhaz Mannan Emon, who filed the case against unidentified assailants after the killings, told Al Jazeera he was glad the “law enforcement could find my brother’s killers”.
‘Even if we do not get Xulhaz [Mannan] ‘back, it’s a comfort to us that the killers have been given the maximum punishment,’ ‘Emon said.
Lawyer Khairul Islam Liton, defender, told Al Jazeera that they would appeal against the ruling in a higher court.
Mannan, 35, was a graduate of international relations at the University of Dhaka. He joined the US Embassy in Dhaka in 2007 and later joined the US International Development Agency (USAID).
In 2014, he co-founded the magazine with Tonoy to spread tolerance and raise awareness about LGBTQ rights.
Tonoy, 26, was also involved with a theater group in the capital and taught children at an organization called the People’s Theater drama.
On the anniversary of their killings earlier this year, the US State Department issued a statement saying they were “killed for their courageous work on behalf of marginalized communities in Bangladesh”.
The attack on the two activists was among a series of murders of secular activists, bloggers, academics and religious minorities committed by the Ansar al-Islam group between 2013 and 2016.
In the three years, members of the group, which claimed ISIL (ISIS) and al-Qaeda, killed or injured more than 50 people in Bangladesh.
They often attack in broad daylight with chopping knives or rough homemade firearms.
‘Constant fear and rejection’
Exiled Bangladeshi journalist and LGBTQ rights activist Tasneem Khalil told Al Jazeera that by killing Mannan and Tonoy, the violent group was ‘able to kill the burgeoning LGBT rights movement’ in the country.
“Today’s ruling does not change the fact that thousands of gay men in Bangladesh, where homophobia remains the norm, are constantly living in fear and exclusion,” Khalil said.
“The work of Xulhaz and Mahbub for the recognition and protection of LGBT rights in Bangladesh must be continued.”
Homosexuality is illegal in Bangladesh, whose law allows for life imprisonment for “unnatural intercourse.”
In December 2008, the country was with a majority of Muslims among 59 nations opposed to the recognition of LGBTQ rights by the United Nations.
Meenakshi Ganguly, the head of Human Rights Watch in South Asia, said the killings of Mannan and Tonoy took place amid “a spate of attacks to restrict freedom of speech and religion because it offends some”.
She said the government in Bangladesh “must respond to this horrific and deadly attack to do much more to uphold the freedom of speech and the rights of the LGBT community”.
Ganguly, however, added that the death penalty “is inherently inhuman and cruel and should be abolished by all countries”.