One year ago, writer Avijit Roy was slashed to death in Bangladesh
His widow, Rafida Ahmed, was badly injured and says the attackers operate with impunity
There is a void in the house where Avijit Roy once lived. Nearly a year after his shocking murder, the feeling of emptiness is palpable for first-time visitors stepping into his home.
His widow, Rafida Ahmed, says she avoids the small book-strewn study where the couple once worked, shoulder to shoulder at a pair of desks, writing and editing Roy’s manuscripts.
“This is where Avijit spent more than half of his life,” she says, shaking her head. “I try not to come here.”
In fact, Ahmed has removed photos of her slain husband from the family’s two-story home, which sits in a sleepy suburb on the outskirts of Atlanta.
The neighborhood’s tidy lawns and mailboxes adorned with red flags are a world away from the dark patch of sidewalk in Bangladesh where, on the night of February 26, 2015, attackers armed with machetes pounced on the couple.
That night, Ahmed and Roy had just walked out of a book fair where the writer was promoting one of his books.
Ahmed, a naturalized American citizen originally born in Bangladesh, barely survived the vicious attack.
“I had four machete stabs on my head,” she explains. “My thumb was sliced off,” she adds, holding up her mutilated left hand. “They hit me in other places of my body too.”
A year later, still in recovery from the physical and psychological trauma of that terrible night, Ahmed says there is no question why she and her husband were targeted.
“Criticizing Islam is becoming a very big crime – a sin – in Bangladesh,” she explains.
Few neighbors in this corner of the U.S. probably knew that Roy was an outspoken champion of atheist thought back in the country of his birth.
As his stepdaughter puts it, Roy lived something of a double life in the U.S. “Though my dad worked as a Java programmer during the day, he was a Bengali writer when he came home,” writes Trisha Ahmed Hoque.
And he was prolific, authoring eight books, editing two more books and managing a website that promoted “freethinking,” an atheist intellectual movement that frequently challenged organized religion.
In one of his books, titled “The Virus of Faith,” Roy compares religious extremism to a highly contagious virus. The book infuriated some Islamists.
In a follow-up article published by an atheist group called Secular Humanism, Roy wrote “the death threats started flowing to my e-mail inbox on a regular basis. I suddenly found myself a target of militant Islamists and terrorists.”
His wife was aware that he had received threats. “Our mistake, we did not take it seriously,” says Ahmed. “When we went to Bangladesh, we didn’t think this was a real threat.”
But the assassination of Roy was not a one-off event.
Series of murders
In the following months, attackers carried out similar machete murders, killing at least four other writers and publishers of secular thought.
The most recent assault on October 31 resulted in the death of publisher and blogger Faisal Arefin Dipan, whose company published Roy’s book “Virus of Faith.” Assailants cut Dipan down in his office.
“It was almost like a one-a-month kind of deal,” Ahmed says, of the killings. “They have a free pass. The impunity has gotten to a point that they know they can get away with anything.”
In 2015, the freedom of press watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists listed Bangladesh as 12th in the world on its Global Impunity Index highlighting countries “where journalists are slain and the killers go free.”
Police in Bangladesh insist they are doing their best to protect writers.
“I think the situation has become safer now,” Joint Police Commissioner Monirul Islam told CNN this month.
The commissioner says at least eight suspects have been arrested in connection with the Avijit Roy murder. None of them have appeared in court yet because the case is still under investigation.
Islam argues that some of the writers who were murdered – including Roy – did not inform authorities ahead of time that they had received threats.
“So how could we provide security for them?” he asks.
Claims and confessions
Claims of responsibility for the atheist blogger murders emerged on social media from Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent.
“These secular and atheist publishers waged war against the religion of Islam in every possible ways [sic],” the group wrote, in a statement archived by SITE Intelligenc