Street in the capital Dhaka, February 2016. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
Dhaka, February 2016. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

Police in Bangladesh’s northern Natore district have charged 12 militants with the murder of a Catholic shopkeeper in June last year.

The charges followed a reported confession by a militant leader in custody, who is said to have admitted that members of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, an organisation affiliated to the Islamic State, planned and carried out the murder “as part of their strategy to destabilise the country in a series of killings”, Natore police chief Biplob Talukder told Catholic news agency UCAN.

Sunil Gomes was hacked to death in Bonpara village, 200km west of Dhaka, home to one of the oldest Christian communities in Muslim-majority Bangladesh.

Seven of the men now charged have died in recent clashes with the police, while one is in custody and the remaining four are still at large.

A local bishop, Gervas Rozario of Rajshahi, said they were “still hopeful that justice and a fair judgment is possible although it has been delayed”.

But Gomes’ daughter said her family was “doubtful” it would see justice, “as police were lacklustre in their investigation and their words and actions often don’t match. It’s been more than a year, but four militants are still hiding. My mother and I are living in fear of being targeted”.

Islamic State in Bangladesh?

Bangladesh has been targeted by a series of attacks by Islamic extremists in the past few years. The government has denied that there is Islamic State activity in the country, but an Islamic State online magazine last year featured an article in which IS’s self-proclaimed “emir” for the Bengal region said “Bengal is an important region for the caliphate [Islamic empire] and the global jihad due to its strategic geographic position”.

Christians and Hindus account for less than 10 per cent of Bangladesh’s population of 160 million and were the targets of several attacks across 2015 and 2016.

In May 2016, two people were injured after bomb attacks on a Christian home. That came a month after a Hindu tailor was hacked to death for allegedly blaspheming against Islam’s prophet.

A month before that, a 65-year-old Muslim convert to Christianity, Hossain Ali, was hacked to death, while in January a 75-year-old pastor, Khaza Somiruddin, was murdered.

In November 2015 an Italian priest was shot and critically injured in the north – an attack later claimed by IS.

Three men also tried to slit the throat of a pastor in October 2015, after they came to him pretending to want to learn about Christianity.