Bangladesh police arrest suspect in attack on publisher

Arrest of a suspected member of a banned Islamist group accused of violently attacking a publisher last year

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The detentions of thousands of suspected criminals across Bangladesh led to the arrest of a suspected member of a banned Islamist group accused of violently attacking a publisher last year, police said Thursday.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has said the raids are part of an effort to root out Islamic militants blamed for a wave of deadly attacks against atheists and religious minorities, even though the vast majority of those detained are accused of petty crimes and not radicalism. The raids have been criticized as a pretext for intimidating political opponents, with the main opposition party saying thousands of its members were rounded up.

Mohammed Sumon Hossain, a suspect presented before court Thursday, was suspected of participating in an attack against publisher Ahmed Rashid Tutul in his Dhaka office in October, the head of police counter-terrorism operations told reporters. Tutul survived the attack, in which two of his friends were also injured, and later was given asylum in Norway.

Authorities identified Hossain as a suspect while questioning two others picked up Monday on the outskirts of Dhaka, according to the counter-terrorism chief, Monirul Islam.

"Information that we got from them led to his arrest last night," Islam said Thursday. "We acted upon specific information we got from them."

Islam said Hossain used several names while operating as a member of the banned Ansarullah Bangla Team, which has claimed responsibility for killing several atheist bloggers and threatened to target more.

The suspect had worked in a private company in the southeastern city of Chittagong. Last month, police had included Hossain's name on a list of suspected militants believed to have been involved in the deadly attacks on atheist bloggers, online activists, writers, members of religious minorities and foreign aid workers.

Islam said Hossain provided information to police during questioning that could help in apprehending those who killed another publisher, Faisal Arefin Deepan, on the same day Tutul was attacked.

Both Tutul and Deepan had published works by Bangladeshi-American blogger and writer Avijit Roy, who was hacked to death in February 2015 while walking with his wife on the Dhaka University campus. ABT claimed responsibility for the attack.

Another jihadist group, Ansar al-Islam, the Bangladesh division of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attacks on Deepan and Tutul, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist online postings. The claim of responsibility could not be independently verified.

At the time, Ansar al-Islam accused the "secular and atheist publishers" of putting out books by blasphemers that dishonored the Prophet Muhammad, and also threatened more attacks.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for many of the attacks since last year, but Bangladesh's government has repeatedly dismissed the idea that the extremist Sunni group has any presence in the country.

Hasina's government has instead blamed domestic terrorists along with Islamist political parties - especially main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its main ally, Jamaat-e-Islami - of orchestrating the violence in order to destabilize the nation.

A London-based spokesman for the BNP again dismissed the allegation this week as an effort by Hasina's government to divert attention from the worsening security situation in Bangladesh. He said the latest crackdown was a hard-handed effort to stomp out political dissent.

"What we are seeing now is how the Sheikh Hasina regime has lost control over the agenda of tackling extremism," said Humaiun Kobir. "It has concentrated for far too long on crushing the political opposition, and using terrorism as an excuse." The home minister denied such motivations in detaining more than 12,600 since June 9.

"We arrested no one out of ill motive or for harassing anyone politically," Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal was quoted as saying in the Prothom Alo newspaper. "The drive is being conducted to arrest the suspected militants and wanted accused."