An 18-year-old student, recovering from severe injuries he received during street protests in Bangladesh, recently contacted Human Rights Watch. He is concerned for his country, he said, and wants to speak out, but fears not only arbitrary arrest, but also that his attackers will return to ensure his silence. “Let them know about us. Let us feel we are not alone. It’s too much,” he said.
Indeed, it is too much. Like him, tens of thousands of students took to the streets calling for better road safety after a speeding bus killed two students late last month. Students demanded safer roads, but also accountable governance and the rule of law: the protests’ slogan is “we want justice.” They filled the streets of Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, bringing the city of 18 million people to a standstill.
But the Bangladesh government responded to the peaceful protests with force, using tear gas and rubber bullets. Students, parents, teachers, or just appalled citizens have been sending to Human Rights Watch pictures and videos of men identifying themselves as ruling Awami League supporters beating up the student protestors, even including schoolchildren in uniform.
The 18-year-old said he was taking pictures of the protests on August 3 when a group of men – some alleged members of the Awami League student wing, the Bangladesh Chhatra League – attacked him. “They wanted my camera,” he said. He saw the police watching while the thugs beat him with sticks, pipes, and machetes. “They did nothing,” he said.
Instead of prosecuting the attackers, the Bangladesh government has been monitoring social media accounts to shut down criticism. At least 20 people have been arrested, including the renowned photographer and activist, Shahidul Alam, for speaking out against the violent crackdown.
This needs to end. The Bangladesh authorities should release Shahidul Alam and others, address violence by everyone, including its supporters, and instead uphold the right of everyone, even children, to peacefully protest. Because nobody – not least young students – should fear violence or arrest just for speaking out.