Tutul: the Survivor – An interview with the target of a Bangladesh machete attack

  • post Type / General news
  • Date / 7 April 2016

Following the murder of four atheist bloggers in Bangladesh throughout 2015, on October 31 two secular publishers were hit in a coordinated attack. At Jagriti publishing house, Faisal Arefin Dipon was killed. At Shuddashar publishers, the owner Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury, better known as Tutul, was struck with a machete and shot at. But Tutul survived. For Fritanke.no, Even Gran interviews a machete attack victim who lived.

Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury in Norway, Photo: Even Gran

This interview was conducted prior to the murder yesterday evening of Nazimuddin Samad.

A smiling Bangladeshi man in his forties greets me in the library in a town in southern Norway. We have written about him before in Fritanke.no. “One dead and three injured in yet another attack on secularists in Bangladesh” [“En død og tre skadet i nytt angrep på sekulære i Bangladesh“] was the headline on November 3, last year.

Ahmed Rashid Tutul (centre) at his publishing house book stall at the Dhaka International Book Fair, 26 February 2015. This is the night Avijit Roy (right) was murdered, and Roy's wife Rafida Ahmed (left) was seriously injured.

Ahmed Rashid Tutul (centre) at his publishing house book stall at the Dhaka International Book Fair, 26 February 2015. This is the night Avijit Roy (right) was murdered, and Roy’s wife Rafida Ahmed (left) was seriously injured.

The article was illustrated by a picture of three people. To the right we see Avijit Roy who was brutally killed by machete in February 2015. To the left is his wife Rafida Bonya Ahmed who was also attacked, but survived. In the middle of the picture stands secular publisher Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury, popularly known as “Tutul”.

Now, Tutul has sought refuge from his Islamist assailants in Norway.

The murder of Avijit Roy was the final wake up-call

“The picture above your article was taken just minutes before Avijit Roy was killed on February 26 last year”, Tutul tells us.

It all happened outside the book fair at the University of Dhaka.

“I had a bookstall there. I have published several of his books, and he had come to the book fair to promote them. Shortly after the picture was taken, Roy and his wife left the campus area. That was the last thing he did. Just outside the entrance of the university Avijit Roy was chopped to death with machetes and was left lying in a pool of blood”, Tutul says.

The murder of Avijit Roy in February 2015 brought international attention to the wave of killings against Bangladeshi secular bloggers and writers which would proceed throughout 2015. Avijit Roy was an American citizen, which of course helped spur attention.

It was also the murder of Avijit Roy that finally made Tutul understand how dangerous the situation was also for him.

“In 2013, the Islamists started publishing lists of secular opinion leaders who they wanted dead. I did not take it seriously at first. Me and some of my secular friends, several of which are dead now, met with the police multiple times and asked them to apprehend the perpetrators. But they only told us that Bangladesh might not be the best place to practice free thinking, and urged us to stop. Anyway, I was not afraid at that point. I didn’t think the Islamists meant business. But when my good friend Avijit Roy was brutally slaughtered just minutes after I had talked to him, I then realized that they might come for me too, for real,” he says.

Tutul decided to flee Bangladesh. The first thing he did was to seek asylum at the Swedish Embassy in the capital Dhaka, but the application was rejected. Then he was advised by a friend to seek protection via “ICORN – International Cities of Refuge Network.” ICORN is an international network of around 50 cities across Europe, the US and Mexico, headquartered in Norway, that offers protection for writers and writers who are persecuted for their opinions and free speech.

The application was granted. ICORN promised that one of the cities in the network would accept Tutul and his family.

“After the attack on Avijit and the positive response from ICORN I started reporting everything that happened to me. I started noticing that people followed me on the street. I received strange phone calls. People started coming by my bookstore asking strange questions. Someone broke into my apartment via the veranda. As a precaution, I started varying my daily routine. I turned off my cellphone. I stopped being at the office at fixed times. I walked different routes to work every day and tried in general to be as unpredictable as possible,” he says.

About a week before he was attacked, Tutul and his wife were pursued by two motorbikes.

“We had been to the theater. Two motorcycles followed the rickshaw we sat in. It was very threatening. We were frightened and stopped to hide in a shop. From there, we called a relative who came and picked us up by car”, he says.

The shot that missed

But then it happened. After three more secular bloggers had been killed through 2015, Washiqur Rahman, Ananta Bijoy Das and Niloy Neel, the Islamists turned their attention to the secular publishers.

On October 31, 2015 the murderers carried out two attacks. One of them succeeded. Faisal Arefin Dipan, holder of the publisher Jagriti Prakashani, was hacked to death by machete in his office. But before that, the assailants had attacked Tutul and his publishing house Shuddashar (sometimes “Shuddho-Shor”).

This is Tutul’s recounting of the events of that day:

“On October 31, I had not been in my office for four days. I stayed at home. But on the 31st, I went down to the office around 11 o’clock. I had a meeting with two writers; Ranadipam Basu and Tareq Rahim. We talked about books, upcoming releases and so on. A little later we had lunch and continued our chat. Around half past two, a seemingly innocent boy came into the reception area. He told my two employees that he was interested in our books. My employees let him in, of course. Then another person arrived. He took out a gun.”

With Tutul’s employee’s hands in the air, the killers continued info the Shuddashar offices, and approached the room where Tutul and his two friends sat.

“When we became aware of them, Tareq Rahim stood up and tried to stop them in the hallway outside the room. He was quickly chopped down and was left unconscious and bleeding on the floor. But he was not their target. When they had incapacitated Tareq, they entered the room and approached Ranadipam Basu and me. The biggest one of them walked straight towards me. He raised his machete, and I think he tried to hit my neck. But he missed and hit me with a powerful blow on the side of my head, inflicting a large wound right above my right ear which began to bleed massively. The last thing I remember before I lost consciousness was the assailant with a raised machete saying ‘Allahu akbar’. He said it calmly. He didn’t yell. When I fell to the floor, I ended up lying halfway under the table. The killer kept hitting, I’ve been told, but it was difficult for him to hit me as hard as he wanted because the table and the leg of the table was in his way. The table protected me against his deadly blows”, Tutul says.

The killer then took out his gun to finish the job that way. Then something happened that probably saved Tutul’s life.

“When the gunman took out his gun, Ranadipam Basu threw a chair at him. The assassin lost his balance. The gun fired, but missed. The bullet hit the wall right behind me”, Tutul tells me.

After this, while Tutul lay bleeding and unconscious under the office table, the killers started discussing whether it was time to call off the operation. Basu overheard the conversation, and they quickly agreed that they didn’t have any time left, and had to leave. On their way out they locked all the doors with their own locks, to prevent anyone from following them.

“They had planned for a quick and swift operation. They only had a short time available before they had to exit to the escape cars waiting outside. I think they were surprised that I wasn’t alone in the room. They probably felt they had run into more trouble than they had expected”, Tutul says.

Later the same day, the assassins succeeded, however, when they managed to kill another secular publisher in Dhaka, Faisal Arefin Dipan. He was killed alone in his office, chopped down with a machete.

Escape to Norway

After the assailants had left the building, the staff called one of Tutul’s friends who is a journalist and then the police. When police arrived, they had to break in. Afterwards, all three men were taken to hospital.

“Some online newspapers quickly got hold of the news. They first reported that I was dead”, Tutul says.

He remained hospitalized for a week, and it was while he was there, that he was told that ICORN had found a place willing to accept him and his family; a town in Norway.

After some back and forth, he managed to obtain a Norwegian visa for himself and his family. The organization IOM (International Organization for Migration) helped him to get airline tickets.

“It was obvious that Bangladesh was a dangerous place for me. We traveled by plane from Dhaka to Doha and then straight to Norway. We arrived Oslo airport on January 29. There we were greeted… and driven there. We have mostly been here the past two months”, he says.

When they arrived Norway, the family sought asylum. The application has already been granted.

Asking Tutul what he thinks of Norway so far, he notes that his new home is very quiet compared to Dhaka. “We’ve got a nice apartment… We are safe here, and it feels good. Me and my wife actually began Norwegian class yesterday. My daughters started learning Norwegian earlier. They have learnt a little more than me. Later on, they will attend a regular Norwegian school of course, but they need to learn the language first. All this is of course a big transition both for them and all of us”, he says.

Asked if he is afraid that Bangladeshi Islamists might come after him in Norway, Tutul replies, “I don’t think they will come after me here… I feel safe here. I’m not afraid.”

No confidence in the police

Tutul doesn’t trust that the police are investigating the murders the way they should. He doesn’t believe they are willing to punish those who have actually perpetrated the atrocities. When he was hospitalized, he was approached by police, he tells us.

“They said they did not know who had done it, even though Ansaar al-Islam had just claimed responsibility for the attack on me and the assassination of Faisal Arefin Dipan. I confronted the police about this, but the officer gave no answer. They never interrogated Ranadipam Basu or  Tareq Rahim”, Tutul says.

Media outlets have previously reported several arrests after the killings. The so-called “Ansar Ullah Bangla Team” has claimed responsibility for some of the killings. In August 2015, news was released that a British citizen, Touhidur Rahman, was the mastermind behind the murders of Avijit Roy and Ananta Bijoy Das.

Tutul rejects this. “About a month after this news aired, we discovered that it is not true. This must have been something that the government came up with to give the impression that they took the murder of Avijit Roy seriously because of all the international attention”, Tutul says.

In December 2015, the BBC and other media outlets reported that two members of the “Ansar Ullah Bangla Team,” Faisal Bin Nayem and Redwanul Azad Rana had been found guilty and sentenced to death for the murder of Ahmed Rajib Haider, dating back to February 2013, while the ideological leader of the gang, Maksudul Hasan, was given a life sentence. Five other members were given prison sentences of five to ten years.

“As far as I know, Redwanul Azad Rana didn’t get the death penalty. He received a prison sentence, and managed to escape. However, he is a key figure behind the killings, and it’s a good thing that he was prosecuted. But we are not satisfied with this. The police and the government have to do much more to find the culprits and bring them to justice”, he says.

Tutul emphasizes that no one can expect to remain in power in Bangladesh if they challenge or oppose the Islamists. They have too much popular support in a county that is more than 90 percent Muslim. The secular movement has for a long time opposed the leading Islamist party in Bangladesh, Jamaat-e-Islam. This long-term political conflict looms large in the background of the brutal killings of secular and atheist activists in recent years.

“Today the formerly large secular parties are completely stripped of power and influence, while the Islamists of Jamaat-e-Islam, Hefazat-E-Islam among others seem nearly omnipotent”, Tutul says.

The publishing house Shuddashar

Tutul started a magazine called Shuddhashar in 1989, during his first year in college. Later on, he and his friends started publishing books by writers from their own group. Very soon the publishing house started to become well known in Bangladesh. The aim was to free people from superstition, religious and social bigotry. The publishing house also issued translated fictional novels by international authors.

“As a result of a joint venture of blogging and publishing there has been a huge change in Bangladesh in the last ten years in terms of free thinking”, Tutul says.

He envisions developing Shuddhashar into an international organization.

“I feel it is my responsibility to do something for all those bloggers, writers and publishers whose lives are in danger”, Tutul says.

The killings of secular activists in Bangladesh – a timeline

The recent wave of killings against the Bangladeshi secular movement began in January 2013.

  • January 2013: The blogger Asif Mohiuddin was attacked, but survived. Today he lives in Germany. In August 2014 Mohiuddin received the Free Expression Award from the British Humanist Association at the World Humanist Congress in Oxford, August 2014.
  • February 2013: The blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider was the first atheist blogger to be killed. Following the killing of Haider the Islamists proclaimed a plan to take control in Bangladesh. They published a list of secular “infidels” that they threatened to kill.
  • March 2013: Sunnyur Rahaman was attacked with machetes and severely injured.
  • November 2014: Sociology Professor Shafiul Islam was stabbed to death. Ansaar al-Islam took responsibility for the killing.
  • February 2015: The blogger and writer Avijit Roy was attacked with machetes and killed outside the university in Dhaka. Roy was an American citizen visiting his home country. His wife, Rafida Ahmed Bonna, was also attacked but survived. A group called Ansar Bangla Team took responsibility and claimed that Avijit Roy had been guilty of “crimes against Islam.”
  • March 2015: The secular blogger Washiqur Rahman Babu was attacked with machetes and killed, roughly the same way as Avijit Roy.
  • May 2015: Another atheist blogger, Ananta Bijoy Das, was chopped to death, this time by four masked men. He had been invited to Sweden by the Swedish PEN, to speak about the persecution of secular bloggers in Bangladesh, but in the weeks prior to his murder Sweden had declined his visa application.
  • August 2015: The blogger Niloy Neel was chopped to death by machetes in his own home.
  • October 2015: Faisal Arefin Dipan, holder of the secular publishing house Jagriti Prakashani, was killed with machetes in his office. The same day, the publisher Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury (Tutul) was also attacked, but survived.
  • April 2016: The secular blogger and activist Nazimuddin Samad was hacked down and killed by gunshot on a Dhaka street.

This article is republished courtesy of fritanke.no translated and partially adapted from the Norwegian.

Fritanke.no is the online news outlet of the Norwegian Humanist Association. Fritanke.no publishes Norwegian and international news and feature stories on a daily basis about lifestance and lifestance politics from a Humanist perspective.

WordPress theme developer - whois: Andy White London