BANGLADESH’s crowded capital of Dhaka has been in a state of gridlock over the past week.
The cause of the congestion? Not of the motorised kind. Instead, the streets of the city of 18 million are being choked this time by tens of thousands of angry students demanding changes to transport laws.
The students were driven to the streets after a road accident on July 29 which saw the deaths of two of their peers. According to reports, a driver for a private bus company ran over the two schoolchildren – a boy and a girl – during an apparent race with another driver for passengers, subsequently killing them.
When the incident hit social channels, widespread anger spread online, culminating in thousands of youngsters flooding the capital to demand justice. The demonstration turned violent, resulting in running scenes of riots and chaos as students blocked roads to bring the capital to a standstill.
On Monday, some university students who defied government warnings to end the protest the bricks at riot police, with some taking processions through the city, the AFP reported.
Students told AFP that police fired rubber bullets at protesters in Bashundhara neighbourhood, which is home to two private universities, and that members of the student wing of the ruling Awami League party attacked the protesters with sticks and bricks.
Pro-government supports are also holding violent counter-protests against the students and media which has caused hundreds of injuries.
Giving in to the pressure, the government approved the maximum jail time for rash driving from five years to three, the law minister said.
“As per the proposed law, an accused has to face five years of jail for negligent driving (leading to death),” Law Minister Anisul Huq said after a cabinet meeting.
He added the deliberate running over of people will draw murder charges and carry the death sentence.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Bangladesh authorities are arresting students and targeting activists and journalists who are highlighting the abuses.
Police also arrested social activist and photographer Shahidul Alam who had posted comments that a student wing of the ruling party was trying to attack the protesters.
Shahidul’s organisation, Drik Picture Library, said 30 to 35 men in plain clothes swept into his Dhaka apartment building, claiming to be police detectives, and whisked him away in a car to be taken to custody.
However, Dhaka’s additional deputy commissioner of police, Obaidur Rahman, said Shahidul was arrested on charges of spreading rumours on social media, aiming to incite violence.
HRW called for an immediate investigation into reports that renowned photographer and activist, Shahidul Alam, was beaten while in custody.
Citing numerous witnesses, the rights group said members of the Awami League party student and youth wings, the Bangladesh Chhatra League, and the Awami Juba League, have attacked the protesters with machetes and sticks.
Eyewitnesses and journalists, including Shahidul, also reported that in some areas police stood by while children were beaten up by Awami League supporters.
Some of the counter-protestors, HRW said, wore helmets to hide their identity and some were identified when the attacks were caught on camera.
“Yet again, Bangladesh authorities seem determined to take abusive shortcuts to problems, and then denounce those who criticise,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
“The authorities should immediately release anyone, including Shahidul Alam, they have locked up for peaceful criticism. Instead, authorities should prosecute those, including members of the ruling party’s youth supporters, who are attacking children with sticks and machetes.”
Additional reporting by the AFP