On May 19, 2017, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite security force in Bangladesh arrested 27 young gay men. They were arrested in a community center where they had gathered on the outskirts of Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh. While it has been widely circulated that they have been arrested because they were found with illegal drugs and condoms ― and not charged with homosexuality ― an officer has informed that AFP that these men were arrested because they were homosexuals.
Acknowledging the existence of the LGBT community in Bangladesh will make the government less popular in the Muslim-dominated voter country. On the other hand, similar to the worldwide outcry about the gross abuse of LGBT rights in Chechnya, the mass arrest of gay men would put Bangladesh in the same situation whereby it will be condemned by the international human rights community. As such, arresting on the grounds of drug possession will serve the dual purpose of not instigating the international scenario and also sending a message to the LGBT community that they are constantly being monitored and none of their activities will be overlooked by the government. This is a deliberate attempt to silence the community which over the last few years the government and the terrorist groups have been trying.
On April 14, 2016, Police in Dhaka, Bangladesh arrested four gay activists during Bengali New Year celebrations. The night before, Xulhaz Mannan, the organizer of the LGBT rally, received a call from the authorities that they were not permitted to go ahead with the event. However, people from the community still gathered at Dhaka University ― not to participate in the canceled rally, but to be part of the Bengali New Year celebrations. These four young gay men were part of this, and the police arrested them and kept them locked up. Within hours their names were splashed all over Facebook, putting them at huge risk as the country was plagued by a series of deadly attacks and has raised alarm both at home and abroad ― and there is little clarity on who is behind the attacks. Any expression of free speech was answered with violence.
While the AQAIS operating in Bangladesh has repeatedly claimed responsibility of these attacks, the Prime Minister has continuously maintained the stance that, “No (ISIS) exists in Bangladesh, but a few home-grown outfits in the name of Islam are conducting terrorist activities.” The young men were discharged after repeated attempts by LGBT advocates, particularly Xulhaz Mannan, but only after outing them to their families. This put them not only at risks of the extremist groups who are repeatedly trying to silence any form of freedom of expression in the country but also at risk of a predominately Muslim society which violently condemns homosexuality.
Within 10 days of this incident, Xulhaz Mannan ― the co-founder and publisher of the first LGBT magazine in Bangladesh ― and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy were hacked to death by a gang posing as couriers in order to gain access to his apartment in the Kalabagan area of the city. The community completely shattered under this attack. The leading LGBT advocates in the country went underground or left the country and the community struggled to cope with the loss while also fearing for their security. On one hand, Ansar al-Islam, the Bangladeshi division of al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, has claimed responsibility for the killings. On the other, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal on Sunday said there was no branch of Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda in Bangladesh.
The LGBT community in Bangladesh are at a juncture where they feel threatened for their lives from the extremist groups and at the same time they cannot ask for help from police, as the country has Article 377 in their constitution:
“Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.”
Despite the fact that the murders of Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy were two of the most high-profile murder cases in Bangladesh, on the first anniversary of their death, there were only two newspapers which published a piece on this issue: one being a republication of an Amnesty Report and the other reported on how no members from government agencies, law enforcement, or investigation officers have contacted the family of Mannan in the year since the crime took place. While the international media has published various pieces, remember these brave activists; the local media has repeatedly denied publishing any piece on homosexuality. On further inquiry, an editor of a section of one of the leading English newspapers in Bangladesh said, “they have received orders from their directorial level that no piece on homosexuality should be published.” This is another major defeat for human rights in the country.
While the LGBT members of Bangladesh have been trying to reorganize the community and recover from the deaths of Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, the arrests of these gay men come as another major setback to these efforts. The public space which the LGBT community tried to reclaim by the publication of Roopbaan ―, the first LGBT magazine in Bangladesh ― and the LGBT rally in 2014 has taken multiple steps backward. The issue is no longer if the community can occupy that public space but if the community members are safe within their households. The question also arises: who is a bigger threat to the survival of the LGBT community in Bangladesh – the extremist groups or the government authorities?