Reuters International

By Sanjeev Miglani

DHAKA (Reuters) - 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 marginalized 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 Qaeda, 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.

ISLAMIC STATE VERSUS AL QAEDA?

The slaying of the two gay men is part of a broader pattern of killings claimed by Islamist militants, who have stepped up a violent campaign in the mainly Muslim nation of 160 million people.

At least 23 people have been hacked to death with machetes since February, 2015. Most attacks occurred in homes, but some happened in broad daylight.

The main groups claiming these murders have been al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and Islamic State, lending the impression of an intensifying rivalry between two movements engaged in global jihad and trying to lure recruits.

That prospect has raised alarm in India and the United States, diplomats in the region said, particularly with U.S. forces engaged in battling Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan facing its own militant threat.

On the quiet street where Mannan, 35, lived in a small apartment block, neither neighbours nor the security guard who let the killers in, believing them to be couriers delivering a package, were prepared to speak.

Friends said Mannan's home was like a "shrine" for members of the gay community, where they could celebrate birthdays and once staged a mock same-sex marriage.

They added that they were too scared even to visit his grave, lest someone see them.

The size of Bangladesh's LGBT community is impossible to estimate, activists said, given that only a small proportion of its members openly admit it.

"CRIMINALS, SINNERS OR PERVERTS"

A few days after Mannan's death, hate messages appeared online saying his mother should also be executed for producing a "bastard son," said Shahanur Islam, a gay rights campaigner who left Dhaka for an undisclosed location after the attack.

"There is so much hatred against us that we fear they will go after our parents and brothers and sisters."

None of the members of the gay and lesbian community who Reuters spoke to said they had approached police for protection, because they feared further harassment.

Some worried that the police investigation into the double murder could "out" them as gays when they had spent a lifetime trying to hide that identity.

"In the eyes of the law we are criminals, in the eyes of our religion we are sinners and from the viewpoint of society we are perverts," said the young professional.

Bangladesh police said on Sunday they had arrested a home-grown Islamist militant in connection with the murder of the gay campaigner and his friend.

Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan said no one involved in the killings would be spared, whether the victims were bloggers or homosexuals. But he urged people to respect religious sensitivities.

"I request everyone to express views moderately. We have learned that Xulhaz was an editor of an LGBT magazine and used to work to protect the rights of gay people. It is not in line with our society," he told reporters.

A lesbian woman said her plight was even more difficult than that of homosexual men; women were simply forced into marriages, or worse.

"My family is not aware of my case," the 20-year-old college student from the north of the country said by telephone. "I suspect they would kill me if they come to know about it."

(Additional reporting by Ruma Paul and Serajul Qaudir; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

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