Weeks after suspected Islamist militants hacked Bangladesh’s most prominent gay rights activist to death in his apartment along with an associate, another friend received a chilling message that he was next in line.
“Say your prayers, confess to God for your sins. Eat or drink whatever you wish to, nobody can save you,” read the handwritten letter, delivered to his home in Dhaka.
Bangladesh’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community was already marginalised in a country where same-sex sexual activity is illegal and many people strongly disapprove.
Now it has been pushed further into the shadows after Xulhaz Mannan, editor of the country’s first LGBT-themed magazine, and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy were murdered in the capital on April 25.
The attack, claimed by the regional arm of al Qaida, was the first of its kind to target the community, although it followed similar killings in the last 16 months of university professors, bloggers and atheists who published views critical of Islam.
Reuters interviewed eight members of Bangladesh’s LGBT community, some of them activists. All but one spoke on condition they not be named, because of the threat to their safety.
Based on their own and others’ experiences, they said some people had scrubbed Facebook pictures that hinted at same-sex relationships or de-activated profiles altogether.
Several had gone into hiding in safe houses in Dhaka arranged by local and foreign friends, while others fled to the countryside, considering it safer than the teeming capital.
“There is this constant, creepy feeling of being followed by someone, even if in reality we are not,” said a young gay professional, who froze in fear last week when he mistakenly thought a man carrying a bag was approaching him with a machete.
“This is what is crippling our everyday life. Any bag can have a machete, which can crack my skull open for being a free thinker.”
Some have moved to more secure apartment blocks with close circuit television, while others are taking self-defence classes. A few days after Mannan’s death, hate messages appeared online.