Bangladesh bloggers who pushed for war-crimes executions now see selves as revenge targets

Omi Rahman Pial has changed homes five times in the last three months. He hasn't seen his young daughter in weeks and is afraid to be seen on the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital and home to several grisly killings of secular bloggers like him.

"I am a refugee in my own country," he said. "And under the threat of being killed, nowhere to go. Where should I go? So if you want to see the maximum punishment a blogger could get in Bangladesh, look at me."

Fear is running high following months in which four bloggers and three other people have been killed, allegedly by Islamist radicals. Many bloggers have gone into hiding, and some have left the country.

Authorities blame the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its main Islamist ally, Jamaat-e-Islami, saying they want to destabilize the country ahead of executions, expected late this year, of two influential politicians from the two parties for war crimes. Some of the victims were involved in a movement that has pressed for capital punishment for those politicians and several others for actions during the country's 1971 independence war against Pakistan. Two of the politicians have been executed.

The parties deny involvement in the killings, saying Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government is pushing hard-liners to strike back by cracking down on its opponents. The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility, but authorities deny that the Sunni extremist group has any presence in the South Asian country.

The blogger attacks have made many fear the rise of religious radicalism in this Muslim-majority nation known since independence for its secularism.

The first strike this year came in February when American-Bangladeshi blogger and writer Avijit Roy was hacked to death as he and his wife walked on the campus of Dhaka University. Then three other secular bloggers have been killed in daylight attacks in Dhaka and outside.

Early this fall, two foreigners — an Italian aid worker and a Japanese agriculture researcher — were killed within a week of each other. The IS group claimed responsibility, as it did Oct. 31, when assailants attacked two book publishers in their Dhaka offices; one died man died and three others were critically injured.

"I am scared. They may kill me anytime," Pial said in an apartment he shares with another blogger who has also gone into hiding, fearing for his life.

"I have not seen my 6-year-old daughter for weeks, my wife is safe for now as she is outside the country with a scholarship. I don't go outside for days," Pial said.

"It's a difficult time for us, for the nation. I don't know where we are heading to."

Pial often appears in television talk shows and stands against radical religious ideologies, war criminals and the Jamaat-e-Islami party, which he says should be banned for extremism and its stand against the country's independence. He views the killings by suspected radicals as part of a "pseudo-war" against the ongoing war-crimes proceedings, which he has advocated for years.

Authorities say recent violence including the killings of bloggers and foreigners is aimed at derailing the executions of influential BNP leader Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury and Jamaat-e-Islami leader Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid. The Supreme Court has upheld a special tribunal's verdict for their execution; the defendants' petitions for a final review of the judgment will be heard Nov. 17. Clemency is unlikely from the country's figurehead president, as Hasina has said war criminals should get the maximum punishment.

Mahbubul Hoque Shakil, a close aide to Hasina, told The Associated Press that the "powerful, strong and moneyed" defendants are trying to derail the process. "And certain foreign governments are with them because they have their interests here. They are trying to use their every bit of their strength," he said.

Bangladesh broke off from Pakistan in 1971, after two decades of nationalist movement turned into an armed conflict between Pakistani soldiers and Bengali-speaking people who wanted a separate state. Jamaat-e-Islami campaigned against Bangladesh's independence and formed militia groups to aid Pakistani soldiers who committed genocide.

Pial has a wristband he has worn since 2005, with a promise that he would not remove it until people who committed war crimes in the 1971 independence war are brought to justice. He collected evidence on war crimes and mobilized young people to raise their voice and slowly create a network of bloggers a year later.

"We started getting a huge response and many young people came forward," Pial says.

Hasina and her Awami League party campaigned on the issue before the 2008 election, promising to bring suspected war criminals to justice. She formed a special tribunal to deal with the long-pending trials in 2010, denying claims by the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami that she was only attempting to weaken her opponents.

Other Bangladeshis, meanwhile, thought authorities were not being aggressive enough. In February 2013, after a tribunal sentenced a senior Jamaat-e-Islami official to life in prison for war crimes, bloggers helped organize weeks-long protests across the country demanding his execution. It was dubbed the Shahbagh Movement because hundreds of thousands of people gathered at Dhaka's Shahbagh intersection near the Dhaka University campus, the epicenter of a previous nationalist and anti-autocratic government movement. The verdict was successfully appealed and the official, Abdul Quader Mollah, was executed later that year.

One of the protest organizers, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was hacked to death as he returned from the rally. Islamist opposition to the Shahbagh Movement grew, with a massive counter-protest and accusations that the bloggers were undermining Islam. Counter-protesters vowed not to leave until the government took action, but in May 2013 authorities forced removed them in two days of action that reportedly left at least 65 people dead.

Former prime minister and BNP leader Khaleda Zia criticized the government for responding with force to the counter-protest when it had allowed the Shahbagh Movement to continue. Zia also described the organizers of the Shahbagh Movement as atheists, though only some of them are.

Pial says all those factors served as "trigger points" to this year's attacks.

"I never wrote against religion, but I always write and work against the Jamaat-e-Islami party and its politics," he said.

"The party's top leadership was involved in genocide in 1971. But now I have been branded as an atheist, and am now on their list of targets."

Pial has been given police security, but he's not sure it will help.

"At one point I discovered that police told my landlord to ask me to leave his home. Because if I stay in that area, the police need to take some extra responsibility. They don't want to take it," he said.

"In the back of their mind, I felt, they think I am an atheist, so maybe it's right if someone kills me.

"I never thought of leaving the country," Pial said. "I want to fight, but now, frankly, I am confused. I don't know what to do."

Shakil, the Hasina aide, said authorities are taking "all measures" to protect bloggers and are investigating the killings. "We have arrested many suspects. No stones will remain unturned," he said.

He said the government supports freedom of expression while opposing "any propaganda" attacking religious beliefs. "We believe an atheist has his freedom to speak with his own logic but without an ill-planned motivation of hurting religious beliefs," Shakil said.

While the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the recent killings, authorities are focusing on local militant group Ansarullah Bangla Team, which claimed responsibility for the previous killings of bloggers. The group is thought to be aligned with al-Qaida in the Indian subcontinent. Bangladesh's Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said it is connected to Jamaat-e-Islami as well.

"The use of the name of the IS is just a cover-up. They want to destabilize the country to derail the war crimes trial," Kamal said.

Bloggers and activists in Dhaka and elsewhere are terrified they might be next. A list of 84 potential targets was once published in newspapers, but three of the four bloggers killed were not on it.

"I think they have a bigger list now," says blogger and activist Baki Billah. He was interviewed at a restaurant in Dhaka, and said he had not stayed at his apartment for days.

"I am staying here and there, with my friends," Billah said.

Blogger Azam Khan believes he has already been targeted. He said some people had asked to enter his home, saying they were seeking a donation for an Islamic school.

"But my security guard did not allow them. Then they tried to convince him and insisted that he open the main gate of my home. Finally they went away when our security guard talked to my sister upstairs by phone," Khan said.

Khan had not lived in the home for some time, out of the same fear that compelled him to stop working.

"I am leading an isolated life," he said.