DHAKA - The secular Bangladeshi publisher who survived a horrific weekend attack at the hands of suspected Islamist extremists has vowed to continue his work, and says the country needs to do more to promote free speech. Ahmedur Rashid Tutul was chatting with two writers in the office of his publishing firm in Dhaka on Saturday, when a group of young men wielding machetes and meat cleavers stormed the building.

“Before we could realise what was happening they started hacking us indiscriminately,” the 43-year-old said from his heavily guarded hospital bed. His attackers, one of whom had visited the firm earlier posing as a book buyer, left the three victims lying in a pool of blood as they left, padlocking the door from the outside. The victims eventually managed to call the police. Looking tired and with a deep gash on his face, Tutul said the brutal violence had only left him “more determined” to publish controversial books in the face of rising extremism. “Once I recover, I will continue my work,” he said, visibly struggling with the pain, as more than a dozen armed policemen stood guard outside his room in the capital.

Tutul, whose firm Shuddhaswar specialises in publishing young, liberal authors, is well aware of the intensifying dangers of his profession. On the same day as the savage attack, his friend Faisal Arefin Dipan, also a secular publisher, was murdered at his office in the Bangladeshi capital.

It follows a wave of violence against secular and atheist writers at the hands of Islamist militants this year that have left at least four bloggers dead. Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) claimed responsibility for the attacks and several previous killings, calling the victims “atheists and blasphemers”. Tensions were already running high in the mainly Muslim, officially secular nation following the murders of an Italian aid worker and a Japanese farmer last month — attacks claimed by the Islamic State group.

Police have rejected these claims of responsibility, saying they suspect a banned local Islamist group was likely responsible.

The latest attacks have outraged Bangladesh’s secular activists, with Dipan’s murder sparking nationwide demonstrations Tuesday from a “free thinkers” organisation representing teachers and writers.

Publishers also staged a strike to protest against the government’s failure to halt the attacks, burning books and shuttering thousands of bookshops across the country.

Both Dipan and Tutul had put out books by Avijit Roy, an American atheist writer of Bangladeshi origin who was hacked to death near a book fair in February.

Tutul, who had published a book on homosexuality by Roy, the most prominent of the murdered bloggers, says he took “precautions” after the killing. “I don’t consider my work as my business only, but it is also how I contribute to foster free thinking here,” he said. Tutul said he blames Bangladesh’s “failed” education system for the rise of Islamist militants. “We’ve failed. We’ve failed to teach our younger generation the need and power of free thoughts. But (militants) have successfully preached their agenda.”

Although no one has been arrested for the attacks yet, the secular government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina pointed the finger at the Islamist-allied opposition, saying the killings were aimed at destabilising the country.

The father of murdered publisher Dipan blamed the nation’s deeply polarised politics for the death of his son. Abul Kashem Fazlul Haq, himself a noted intellectual, told reporters on Saturday there was “no point” in seeking justice until the rift between pro-Islamist and secular parties was healed.

Tutul echoed Haq’s sentiment. “To whom would I seek justice? (Blogger) Avijit was killed in front of the law enforcers. Did that help? No,” he said.

Tutul’s two compatriots — secular blogger and writer Ranadipam Basu and poet Tareq Rahim are being kept by in nearby hospital cabins, also guarded by armed policemen. The conditions of all three are improving, a doctor at the hospital said, asking not to be named.

With heavy bandages on his head and hand and stitches covering his body, 50-year-old writer Basu said free speech should not come at such a “heavy price”. “What crime did we commit? We all have the right to write and express what we think. We want to walk freely from the constant tension that someone might hack me from behind,” he said. “This is not life.”