More than 300 people were injured in violent clashes that marred the end of the student-led protest for safer roads, which had brought Dhaka to standstill for over a week.
The ruling Awami League government was accused of using its student wing, the Bangladesh Chatra League, as well as police armed with tear gas and rubber bullets to crush the nine-day demonstration by tens of thousands of school and university students.
Clashes erupted in different parts of Dhaka from Saturday to Monday as students, journalists, photographers, pedestrians battled authorities and young men, allegedly from the Chatra League.
Social media was flooded with shocking images and videos of injured students and media personnel, while rights groups issued cries for help. In most of the videos, unidentified men carrying rods, machetes and bamboo sticks were seen attacking students.
Protesters started leaving the streets on Tuesday morning. Educational institutes which had been closed opened up, albeit to fewer students than normal.
Actress and top photographer detained
Late on Sunday night, police detained and arrested the internationally-acclaimed Bangladeshi photographer and social activist Shahidul Alam. He was held under section 57 of the country’s infamous Information and Communication Technology Act for “hatching (an) international conspiracy.”
Alam had been providing updates about the protest through Facebook Live. He also gave an interview to Doha-based Al Jazeera network in which he criticized the government.
The well-known Bangladeshi actress Quazi Nawshaba Ahmed was also detained on Saturday and later placed in remand for four days for spreading rumors after she shared a post on Facebook that said two protesters were killed and that the eye of another was gouged out.
Amid the protest, on Sunday night, a car carrying the US ambassador to Bangladesh Marcia Bernicat was attacked by “armed adult men” — but she escaped unscathed, the embassy said.
The center of violence on the weekend was Dhanmondi, an upscale residential area in Dhaka where the office of the Awami League chairperson is located.
Witnesses said clashes erupted between protesting students and members of the Bangladesh Chatra League after students tried checking licenses and fitness certificates for vehicles carrying some of the student wing members.
Caused by fatal bus accident
The protest erupted on July 29 after a bus ploughed into high school students in Dhaka, killing two of them while they waited to board another bus. That caused students from different high schools, colleges and universities to mass on the streets of the capital and act as vigilant traffic police – to drive home the message that the real police “failed in their duties.”
Over subsequent days the students’ spontaneous rallies turned into a huge melee between teenagers in school uniform and officials.
In recent days there were rumors that Chatra League men had taken five or six student hostage inside the Awami League office. There were reports of killings and sexual harassment of protesters at the hands of the student wing, which inflamed public anger.
But the Chatra League men and police eventually took full control of Dhanmondi-3A, patrolling the area and beating up anyone who tried taking photos or video footage.
Sporadic clashes broke out between protesters and alleged Chatra League activists in other parts of the city. In almost every instance, police either remained silent or sided with the activists, according to media reports.
News and photos of an attack on students on Saturday stirred outrage and further rallying on Sunday. Thousands of students from different universities and colleges came out onto the streets in areas such as Uttara, Banani, Bashundhara, Firmgate and Tejgaon.
But their protest was foiled by a large group which was alleged to have beaten up as many as five photojournalists, including AM Ahad of Associated Press, who was rushed to hospital in a critical condition.
Police, meanwhile, fired rounds of tear-gas to disperse the students. Students interviewed for this story maintain they intended only to voice their protest through a peaceful sit-in, but that police and activists from the Chatra League attacked them without any provocation.
Obaidul Quader, secretary-general of the ruling Awami League, defended the assault, claiming it was student agitators who acted first. “Will we kiss them if they advance towards our office?” Quader asked reporters on Sunday. He reiterated his call to the students to return home and said all of the demands raised by the protesters had been accepted.
TV channels who broadcast live coverage of Saturday’s events were instructed on Sunday to stop broadcasting news “which can instil fear among common people and can create chaos in the society,” a circular by the Ministry of Information stated. The country’s telecom regulator also instructed mobile operators to slow down the speed of internet links, reportedly to hamper the live-streaming and protesters who sought to document the violence.
Government caught in awkward position
Observers said the rally had come at a difficult time for the government, which faces a national election at the end of the year. But its brutal handling of a seemingly non-political movement has put the ruling Awami League in an awkward position.
Separate statements from UN agencies, the US and the European Union expressed grave concern over the attacks on children and young students with a seemingly valid reason to protest.
The United Nations Resident Coordinator Mia Seppo said: “We are deeply concerned about the reports of violence and call on all for calm. The concerns expressed by youth about road safety are legitimate and a solution is needed for a mega city like Dhaka.”
The US Embassy issued a statement saying: “While we do not condone the actions of a few who have engaged in senseless property destruction, including of buses and other vehicles, nothing can justify the brutal attacks and violence over the weekend against the thousands of young people who have been peacefully exercising their democratic rights in supporting a safer Bangladesh.”
The European Union also called for people “to respect the right to peaceful protest”. Incidents of unlawful or disproportionate violence must be investigated and perpetrators held to account, it said.
Meanwhile, leaders from the ruling party claimed the student protest was infiltrated by rivals from other political parties who sought to create chaos.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina hinted strongly on Sunday that arch-rivals from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami were involved, saying that “infiltrators” had tried to benefit from the student movement by spreading rumors and instigating violence.
She said all the students’ demands had been met and there “is no point of carrying on this protest”, as common people were suffering.
On Monday, the cabinet approved a draft Road Transport Act 2018 with up to five years jail and fines of up to 500,000 taka (US$5,927) for fatal road accidents. While the government did not include the death penalty, as demanded by the protesters, the new law sets more severe punishments than the existing law for those who violate traffic rules.