[The assault was eerily similar to a series of attacks on bloggers carried out last year, often in crowded public places. The leader of Al Qaeda’s branch in the Indian subcontinent released a video taking responsibility for two of the killings, calling the victims “blasphemers.” In October came fatal attacks on two men who had published the works of atheist writers.]
By Ellen Barry and Maher Sattar
NEW DELHI — Men armed with machetes have killed a secular activist at a crowded intersection in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, a police official said on Thursday, the latest in a series of grisly attacks on intellectuals and bloggers who have written critically about militant Islam on social media.
Witnesses said a group of cleanshaven men surrounded Mohammad Nazim Uddin, a law student, as he walked on the street around 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday and slashed his head, then shot him when he fell to the ground, said Syed Nurul Islam, the deputy commissioner of police for Wari, the area of Old Dhaka where the killing took place.
Mr. Uddin, 26, was a convinced atheist who frequently expressed his views on Facebook, often posting as many as five times a day. His family had asked him to stop, fearful that the posts would make him a target, and for about four months, ending in January, he had complied, said Gulam Rabbi Chowdhury, a childhood friend.
“To tell the truth, he was always a little detached from his family; he had trouble with them because of his views on religion,” Mr. Chowdhury said. “He was very outspoken. He didn’t worry about whether you were with him or not.”
Mr. Uddin’s killing deepens the sense of dread among those campaigning for secular causes, said Mr. Chowdhury, an official in a regional chapter of the Communist Party of Bangladesh.
“If we keep our mouths shut, then they’ll finish the atheists one by one, and after that, they’ll eventually come to us,” he said. “Everyone is afraid to speak out now.”
The assault was eerily similar to a series of attacks on bloggers carried out last year, often in crowded public places. The leader of Al Qaeda’s branch in the Indian subcontinent released a video taking responsibility for two of the killings, calling the victims “blasphemers.” In October came fatal attacks on two men who had published the works of atheist writers.
Many writers and journalists have become hesitant to publish work that could attract the attention of Islamists, and a growing list of activists have applied for asylum in Western countries.
Robert D. Watkins, the United Nations resident coordinator in Bangladesh, called on the government to ensure the perpetrators were brought to justice.
His statement notes that courts have so far delivered a verdict in only one of the recent blogger killings, the murder of Rajib Haider in 2013.
As a student, Mr. Uddin was part of the Shahbag movement, which seeks to punish Islamist leaders convicted of war crimes during the bloody 1971 war for independence from Pakistan.
His Facebook writings focused on the ideological rift that has opened among young Bangladeshis, between those who see the country as fundamentally secular and those gravitating toward orthodox Islam.
He frequently urged the government to take a tougher line with Islamist groups. In one post, he used a proverb to criticize the government’s approach to rising militancy, likening it to raising a baby snake by feeding it milk and bananas.
Asked for his religious views, Mr. Uddin wrote, “I have no religion.”
In August, he responded publicly to what appeared to be threats, fuming: “No one is forcing you to read or look at what I write. So why this violence, this murdering?” Then he abruptly ceased his prolific postings, explaining his decision with a grim verse: “I won’t write anymore. I won’t stay here anymore. Your hell can stay your own. Everyone can burn or die in this hell.”
In January, when he resurfaced on social media, his friends cheered his return and asked why he had been away so long.
Ellen Barry reported from New Delhi, and Maher Sattar from Dhaka, Bangladesh.