(New York) – Instead of prosecuting those responsible for unlawfully attacking student protesters demanding road safety, Bangladesh authorities are arresting students and targeting activists and journalists who are highlighting the abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities should order an immediate investigation into reports that renowned photographer and activist, Shahidul Alam, was beaten while in custody. Alam was detained on August 5, 2018, for criticizing the government and its supporters for targeting students.
Thousands of students, including school children, have been blocking streets to protest the July 29 killings of two students by a speeding bus. According to numerous witnesses, members of the ruling 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 Alam, also reported that in some areas police stood by while children were beaten up by Awami League supporters, some of whom wore helmets to hide their identity. Some perpetrators 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 criticize,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “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.”
Following the protests, Bangladesh authorities have promised an end to reckless driving, to regulate traffic, and to enact a new Road Safety Act. Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, however, warned protesters to “not to cross the limit,” or be prepared to face police action. Security forces used teargas, rubber bullets, and in some cases, live ammunition against protesters.
One protester told Human Rights Watch that about 500 students, many of them women and girls, had gathered in the Uttara area of Dhaka in the morning of August 5 to peacefully regulate traffic and enforce lane driving. Then several young men arrived on motorbikes, carrying machetes and sticks. “They said, ‘You must leave. The prime minister has asked us to come sort you out.’” The protester said his group asked the women and girls to run away since there are reports that several have been sexually abused during attacks on other protests. The attackers, all wearing helmets to hide their identity, started beating the students. “The police just stood there. They were taking pictures and videos to be able to identify the protesters. They did not stop the attacks.”
Similar attacks were reported in other areas of Dhaka. Some 20 journalists, particularly photographers and videographers, were beaten up for documenting the attacks, according to media reports. While some attackers wore helmets, the journalists identified some of their attackers to be Awami League youth members.
Internationally acclaimed photographer and activist, Shahidul Alam, founder of the Drik Gallery, was detained by members of the Detective Branch of the Bangladesh police at 10 p.m. from his house in Dhaka on August 5, hours after an interview with Al Jazeera where he said that “the police specifically asked for help from armed goons to combat unarmed students demanding safe roads.” He also denounced the government in the interview for “[the] looting of banks, the gagging of media, …extra judicial killings, the disappearances, the protection money at all levels, [and] corruption in education.”
The police have filed a case against Alam under Section 57 of Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT Act), which authorizes the prosecution of any person who publishes, in electronic form, material that is fake and obscene; defamatory; “tends to deprave and corrupt” its audience; causes, or may cause, “deterioration in law and order;” prejudices the image of the state or a person; or “causes or may cause hurt to religious belief.” The overly broad law has been repeatedly used to prosecute those who criticize the government or individual politicians.
Authorities have also restricted access to telecommunications networks across the country since August 4, saying that these shutdowns are needed to prevent violence fueled by rumors circulated on social media or mobile messaging applications. Several others are also facing prosecutions under the ICT Act for criticizing the government and posting videos of the protests on Facebook.
In other ongoing unrest, earlier on August 4, unknown attackers, allegedly government supporters, stoned the vehicle of outgoing US ambassador to Bangladesh, Marcia Bernicat, as she was leaving the residence of Badiul Alam Majumder, secretary of civil society advocacy group Shujan, after a farewell dinner. They then attacked Majumder’s house.
The Bangladesh government should ensure that security forces respect basic human rights standards on the use of force, including in dispersing demonstrations, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials provide that officials “shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force.” When using force is unavoidable, officials must exercise restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense.
“It would be shameful if the Sheikh Hasina government is deploying party hoodlums to target students for demanding safe roads,” said Adams. “Bangladeshi authorities must immediately halt the violence perpetrated by government supporters against protesters and journalists and respect the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”