By Prarthana Mitra
The Dhaka students’ movement began as a peaceful protest for safer roads last week, but it has witnessed a barbaric and brutal crackdown from the government over the weekend, as young teenage activists faced rubber bullets, tear gas and batons for voicing dissent.
In the wake of two Bangladeshi students losing their lives in a road accident on July 29, teenagers across the nation united to agitate for greater road safety and enforcement of street traffic laws. They even took to stopping vehicles and verifying license and registration themselves, to harp on the abundance of underage and unequipped drivers on the road. The centre was initially even willing to accept their demands to take comprehensive action to curb traffic accidents which cause more than 20,000 road fatalities every year in Bangladesh.
However, on Saturday, at least 200 school uniform-clad protestors were left brutally injured after police opened tear gas to break up the demonstration, while another mob of helmet-clad goons attacked them with batons in Dhanmondi, Dhaka. This systemic attack on protestors and photographers, launched allegedly by the ruling Awami League’s student wing, has created global outcry, even as PM Sheikh Hasina tried to shift the blame on rival parties and muffle the voice of media.
The Bangladesh goverment is killing students because they dared to demand better road laws…we can help them by sharing this pictures. The goverment is deleting and censoring news related to the protest. #Bangladesh #bangladeshstudentprotest pic.twitter.com/WJ1I7Zwuyb
— Rob's… (@alrob91) August 5, 2018
“We have treated more than 115 injured students so far since the afternoon,” emergency ward doctor Abdus Shabbir told AFP, adding some sported injuries consistent with rubber bullets. “A few of them were in very bad condition,” he added.
“We all are feeling threatened here. We wanted a peaceful protest. We don’t want any trouble occurring around here. Yet rubber bullets were shot at our brothers,” Sabbir Hossain, a student, said.
According to unconfirmed social media reports, an unestimated number of students were also raped and killed by members of Bangladesh Chhatra League. To make matters worse, there was a complete media and mobile internet blackout with some national channels even dismissing them as rumors, despite the huge photographic and videographic evidence on the contrary.
Several photojournalists were also caught in the crossfire, beaten and severely injured, including AP’s AM Ahad and local reporters Marzuk Ahsan, Rahat Karim, Enkiad Hasin and Enamul Hasan.
5 Photojournalists injured as activists of Bangladesh Chhatra League, allegedly swooped on them at Science Lab intersection in Dhaka this noon. 3 photojournalists were identified as Rahat Karim, a freelance photojournalist, AM Ahad of Associated Press and Palash of Daily Bonik. pic.twitter.com/cYyxMDVnhg
— ICPFJ (@ICPFJ) August 5, 2018
Besides abducting student activists to scare them into silence, renowned activist and award-winning photographer Shahidul Alam was also taken into custody from his residence in Dhaka later that night, reportedly over a controversial interview with Al Jazeera (below).
Around 35 policemen in plain clothes came in and forcibly picked Alam up from his home, while taping up all CCTV cameras in the vicinity and confiscating the footage. According to the latest reports, he was refused a lawyer, beaten to get a statement and is now placed on a 7-day remand under the Information and Communication Act.
“Shahidul Alam must be immediately and unconditionally released. There is no justification whatsoever for detaining anyone for solely peacefully expressing their views. His arrest marks a dangerous escalation of a crackdown by the government that has seen the police and vigilantes unleash violence against student protestors,” said Omar Waraich, Amnesty International’s Deputy South Asia Director.Credit: Facebook/Drik
Treading human rights violations to quell dissent
UNICEF Bangladesh made an official statement voicing the growing concern among all UN agencies for the safety of children and young people participating in the Dhaka protests. Observing the students’ legitimate right to speak out on issues of concern to them without the threat of violence, United Nations Resident Coordinator Mia Seppo said, “The concerns expressed by youth about road safety are legitimate and a solution is needed for a mega city like Dhaka. A functioning public transport system should ensure the safety of all, including children, young girls and women.”
“The right to protest and to criticize the government is one that should be given to all especially since its people just voicing their views. Replying to the assertion of that right with violence is a straight up denial of free speech. There needs to be a worldwide global outcry against this, because no power has the right to treat anyone’s voices of disapproval with violence,” Indian student Brendon Michael Fernandez said in a Facebook post.
With the media blackout and detainment still in place, the ground situation continues to be obfuscated. While certain Reddit users claim that the overall atmosphere is calmer albeit tense, many believe the country is on the brink of a civil war. Meanwhile, the fearless youth of Bangladesh continue to march in Dhaka, Chattagram, Shahbag and Jahangirnagar until their demands are met, and against these new atrocities, with growing solidarity from the rest of the world.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius
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