NAMIBIA – More than 30 people were killed in Bangladesh on Sunday and Monday in clashes between police and tens of thousands of protesters who demanded the passage of an anti-blasphemy bill in the Islamic state, ruled under a secular penal code dating back to 1860.
As many as 36 people had been reported killed in protests across the country as of Monday according to an AFP news agency toll compiled by police and medical officials.
Local media reported the violence broke out Sunday in the capital of Dhaka after police fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd of more than 70,000 protesters. Police banned all rallies in the capital on Monday to prevent further violence.
Dhaka police spokesman Masudur Rahman told AFP that sound grenades, water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets were all used to disperse the crowd gathering at Motijheel commercial district.
“We were forced to act after they unlawfully continued their gathering at Motijheel. They attacked us with bricks, stones, rods and bamboo sticks,” Rahman said.
Hundreds of additional injuries were reported Sunday as thousands of protesters blocked highways and fought running battles with more than 10,000 security forces while demanding the government follow stricter Islamic principles.
While Bangladesh transitioned from being a secular state in 1971 to an Islamic state in 1988, the country continues to function under a secular penal code that originated during the British occupation in 1860.
Protesters associated with the radical Salafist group, Hifazat-e-Islam, presented a list of 13 demands to the government, including compulsory Islamic education, segregation of men and women and death penalty sentences for all “atheists” who defame Islam. The list also called for the release of all detained Islamic scholars and demanded an end to candlelight vigils held in the name of free speech.
According to Kamal Hossein, a Bangladeshi law minister and current Supreme Court senior advocate, the group’s demands will get little support.
“I can honestly say that there is complete consensus in the country on non-communal democracy and not getting communalism revived again, not seeing religion mixed up with politics,” Hossein told VOA News. “Pakistan is having enough difficulties with it for people to just look across [and see how they are faring]. And I have spoken to people from Pakistan and they say ‘you are so fortunate to have been able to have non-communal politics.’”
Sheikh Hasina Wajed, Bangladesh prime minister, said the country’s laws already protect against the protesters’ concerns, adding that the government “will not allow any chaos in the name of Islam, a religion of peace.”
Violent protests – an ongoing issue
In anticipation of the weekend’s violence, Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged the Bangladeshi government to ensure that security forces end their practice of excessive force against protesters and open an investigation into the deaths of dozens of protesters over the past three months.
According to Brad Adams, HRW Asia Director, Bangladeshi security forces have exercised excessive force against protesters since large-scale demonstrations erupted in the country in February. “Security forces confronted with large groups of demonstrators have opened fire on crowds, often without warning, killing unarmed protesters and bystanders,” Adams said.
“It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that this stops, and to replace officials who have failed to properly supervise forces under their control,” he added.
While police officials claim to use only rubber bullets against protesters, HRW has interviewed family members and obtained medical reports that describe wounds consistent with the use of live ammunition. Previously-documented attacks against protesters include shots to the head, chest and stomach.
Prior to the May 5 violence, most deaths of protesters occurred in the week following the Feb. 28 verdict by Bangladesh’s International War Crimes Tribunal (ICT) sentencing Jamaat-e-Islami party leader, Delwar Hossein Sayeedi, to death for his role in mass killings, rapes and other atrocities committed during the country’s fight for independence from Pakistan in 1971.
While acknowledging that security forces may feel nervous with the large scale of recent demonstrations, reaching in the thousands, Adams believes that “when security forces fire live rounds into a crowd at head and chest height, they know there are going to be casualties and possibly deaths.”
“Bangladesh is facing some of the most serious political unrest it has seen in decades, and protests are being called on a weekly basis,” Adams said. “Bangladeshi security forces need to be reined in and held accountable for their actions, or the situation could spin out of control.”
Protesters not always so peaceful
Human Rights Watch also called on opposition parties to condemn violence carried out by their own supporters, including unlawful attacks on law enforcement officers and members of the public with opposing viewpoints. Eight police officers had been killed during protests prior to May 5.
Over the weekend, members of Hifazat-e-Islam attacked the headquarters of the ruling Awami League party, set fire to more than 100 shops and 50 parked cars, and vandalized several other buildings, including a police office.
Two policemen and a paramilitary soldier were killed during clashes in Kanchpur just outside Dhaka on Sunday. The violence by protesters is reported to have largely erupted after security forces tried to disperse the crowd with tear gas and rubber bullets.
Protesters from the newly-formed fundamentalist group were seen carrying sticks as they blocked major roads in Dhaka and chanted “One point, one demand: Atheists must be hanged,” among other messages, in front of the city’s largest mosque.
Founded in 2010 to protest against the secular education policy of the Bangladesh government, Hifazat-e-Islam follows extremely conservative Islamic values similar to those followed by the Taliban.
While the fundamentalist group is believed to be politically backed by the Bangladesh party Jamaat-e-Islami, the group’s support is not universal among all Muslims in the country. Members of the Sunni Muslim community in the city of Chittagong burst into protests of condemnation in late April after activists of Hifazat-e-Islam attacked Islamic scholars at the Jamiatul Falah National Mosque and a nearby shrine.
The government in Bangladesh responded to the most recent demonstrations in Dhaka by transferring Allama Shah Ahmad Shafi, head of Hifazat-e-Islam, to the city of Chittagong and shutting down a pro-Islamist television channel after it aired video of the May 5 violence.
Despite such attempts to quell violence, protests in Bangladesh show no signs of subsiding. Islamist hardliners continued to protest in the city of Narayanganj on Monday, torching vehicles and clashing with police while the ban on rallies was upheld in neighboring Dhaka.
Political instability in Bangladesh is only expected to continue ahead of parliamentary elections later this year.
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