Bangladesh protest violence leaves more than 30 people dead
Demonstration in Dhaka calling for anti-blasphemy law descends into chaos as Islamists clash with police and ruling party activists
More than 30 people have died in fierce clashes between police and Islamist protesters in the Bangladesh capital, Dhaka, compounding the chaos in a country struggling to come to terms with a building collapse that killed more 650 people last month.
A large rally, organised by the Hefazat-e-Islam, a pressure group consisting of teachers and students of religious schools, descended into violence on Sunday evening when Islamist protesters clashed with police and ruling Awami League activists. Several hundred shops and vehicles were burnt during pitched battles that raged into the night.
The Islamists were demonstrating in favour of an anti-blasphemy law and demanding punishment for “atheist” bloggers who they say have insulted Islam and its prophet.
Many continued to clash with police on Monday in the Narayanganj suburb of Dhaka and in the Chittagong district in the south-east, with at least 15 protesters and 3 police officers confirmed dead by police sources.
Munirul Islam, a police spokesman, said law enforcement personnel had acted to safeguard the lives and property of citizens after Islamists resorted to violence. The police banned political demonstrations in Dhaka on Monday and cancelled permission for rallies planned by the Awami League and the main opposition BNP.
But Zafrullah Khan, a spokesman for Hefazat-e-Islam, accused the government of a “massacre in the dead of night”.
At 2.30am local time on Monday, about 5,000 law enforcement personnel, including members of the police and paramilitary troops, proceeded towards the gathering of at least 70,000 Hefazat activists.
In the darkness, with power to the area cut, police reportedly charged into the gathering, lobbing tear gas and stun grenades and firing into the crowd.
Earlier, they had ordered the Hefazat activists to leave using megaphones. At least 22 people died in the clashes, most of them supporters of Hefazat, according to police and hospital sources. Doctors at Dhaka Medical College Hospital said many of those dead had been shot in the head.
Diganta TV and Islamic TV had been shut down for misleading reporting, an official of the Bangladesh Telecom Regulatory Commission said. The two channels had broadcast live the Islamist rally in Dhaka. Police officials took control of the studios late on Sunday.
Last month, the government attracted criticism from human rights advocates when it shut down a pro-opposition newspaper, the daily Amar Desh, and arrested its editor, Mahmudur Rahman.
Business leaders in Dhaka said the ongoing unrest would make life more difficult for factory owners who have been struggling to meet shipment deadlines due to frequent general strikes.
“The garment industry is under severe pressure,” said Siddiqur Rahman, senior vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. “With more political unrest ahead, it will be even more difficult to meet our export goals.”
In Savar, north of Dhaka, where a factory collapsed on 24 April, the death toll passed 650 as bulldozers continued to dig into twisted piles of steel and concrete Monday.
Shafiul Azam, a fire service official at the scene, said rescuers were still finding body parts from the ground floor of the collapsed structure.
“A lot of people on upper floors were pushed into the lower floors by the force of falling masonry,” he said. “The bodies are mangled and decomposed beyond recognition.”
The decomposition of the bodies has increased the grief of relatives still holding a vigil for loved ones missing in the disaster.
The wife of a dead garment worker has filed a murder complaint against the building’s owner, Sohel Rana, one of the garment factory owners and a municipal engineer. The three face the death penalty if convicted of murder.
Rana, a local leader of the Awami League, was arrested after a four-day manhunt as he tried to flee the country.