Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie join protest at ‘impunity’ of Bangladesh bloggers’ killers

More than 150 writers have written an open letter to the Bangladeshi government calling for action to protect free expression and to bring perpetrators to justice

A  poster with pictures of the murdered Bangladeshi bloggers at a demonstration in Kolkata, India, on May 16.
 A poster with pictures of the murdered Bangladeshi bloggers at a demonstration in Kolkata, India, on May 16. Photograph: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images

More than 150 writers from around the world, including Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Yann Martel and Colm Tóibín, have added their name to a letter condemning the deaths of three bloggers in Bangladesh this year, calling on the country’s government “to ensure that the tragic events of the last three months are not repeated, and to bring the perpetrators to justice”.

Speaking to the Guardian via email, Booker-winning novelist Martel explained that he added his name to the letter because of “the egregious nature of the offence … something must be done urgently”.

“I also added my name for a more practical reason,” he said, “the government of Bangladesh might be more subject to influence because of this letter than a government in the west, where letters and petitions and appeals and the like are always flying about, and politicians grown inured to them. My hope is that the government of Sheikh Hasina might actually be mortified by this letter.”

The letter comes after the blogger Ananta Bijoy Das was hacked to death last week on a crowded street in Sylhet, Bangladesh’s fifth-largest city. He was on his way to work when he was chased down the road and killed by four masked attackers wielding machetes.

Das was a contributor to Mukto-Mona (Free Mind), where he posted articles concerning science and evolution, as well as a number of pieces critical of Islam and Hinduism. According to fellow writers, he appeared on a hitlist drawn up by militants said to be behind an attack on Avijit Roy and his wife Rafida Ahmed Bonya in February.

Roy, who founded Mukto-Mona in 2002, died shortly afterwards, with Washiqur Rahman murdered the following month.

In joint initiative from PEN International and English PEN, the authors express their shock and horror at recent developments, noting that “although there have been several arrests, no one has been held to account for any of these attacks”.

With these three murders bringing the total of authors who have been attacked in Bangladesh since 2013 to six, the writers say they are “gravely concerned by this escalating pattern of violence against writers and journalists who are peacefully expressing their views”.

'What happens over there will eventually have an effect here, regardless of where there and here are' ... Yann Martel.

 Yann Martel. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

“Freedom of expression is a fundamental right under Bangladesh’s constitution as well as one of the rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” the letter continues. “We call on the Bangladeshi authorities to swiftly and impartially investigate Ananta Bijoy Das’s death as well as the murders of Avijit Roy and Washiqur Rahman Babu, and ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice in accordance with international fair trial standards.”

The writers also demand that the Bangladeshi authorities “do all in their power to provide protection and support to bloggers and other writers at risk in Bangladesh, in accordance with Bangladesh’s obligations under national and international law”.

For Martel, religious extremism is “the harshest and most personal threat” facing writers around the world.

In the west, freedom of speech is threatened more by “indifference and sloth,” he added, “which is then exploited by those with nefarious intents, be it politicians, the police, transnational corporations and so on. An alert citizenry is the foundation of a just society, but to be an alert citizen in our current economic system – by that I mean unfettered free-market capitalism – which works and squeezes us to death, is exhausting.”

Writers in the west have a duty to defend colleagues living in places where freedom of speech is under particular pressure, he continued. “Because why would’t we defend them? An offence is an offence, and offences, if unchecked, are contagious. What happens over there will eventually have an effect here, regardless of where there and here are.”

Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, described the recent attacks as “a campaign of violence against bloggers and writers who are courageous enough to speak out in a hostile culture for free speech”.

“The government of Bangladesh must urgently address the climate of impunity and be seen to safeguard freedom of expression,” she said. “These shocking events have united writers throughout the world in an important show of solidarity.”

Bangladesh’s High Commission in London did not respond to a request for comment.