Following deadly clashes between protesters and police a day earlier, five more people were killed and dozens injured as demonstrations against the visit of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi raged on in Bangladesh on Saturday.
Modi reached Dhaka on Friday morning for a two-day visit to join celebrations marking 50 years of Bangladesh’s independence and the birth centenary of its founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
He departed on Saturday night after holding a meeting with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in which the two signed multiple agreements and jointly inaugurated projects, according to the Foreign Ministry.
His visit was vehemently opposed by critics who accuse him of fomenting religious polarization in India and encouraging persecution of minorities, particularly Muslims.
Heavy contingents of police, special forces, and even the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) were deployed as authorities – on alert after Friday’s violent clashes – beefed up security in the capital and other cities.
Citizens also complained of access to social media platform Facebook being restricted in the country since Friday evening.
Violence broke out at a protest in the eastern district of Brahmanbaria, resulting in the death of five supporters of Muslim group Hefazat-e-Islam, according to multiple sources.
“Five of our supporters were shot dead by police and BGB personnel,” Azizul Haque Islamabadi, the group’s joint secretary general, told Anadolu Agency.
“At least 30 more have been wounded; most of them were shot. Some of them are in very critical condition.”
Local media reports, citing police sources, also confirmed that five people were killed in clashes in Brahmanbaria and said the victims were between the ages of 22 and 35.
At least 25 security personnel were injured in violence in the district’s Sarail area, according to the reports.
The latest casualties have raised the death toll since Friday to 10.
Thousands also poured out onto the streets of Dhaka on Saturday for protests in various areas of the capital, including the Uttara suburb, the National Press Club, and the Baitul Mukarram National Mosque.
The demonstrations were organized by Hefazat-e-Islam and other Muslim groups.
At one of the protests in Dhaka, Fazlul Karim Kasemi, joint secretary general of Hefazat-e-Islam, warned that the group would launch a “movement to overthrow the government” if authorities do not back off from trying to disrupt their demonstrations.
Protests also continued on Saturday in Chattogram, where four people were killed in clashes a day earlier.
– ‘No access to Facebook’
Hours after violence swept the country on Friday evening, users in various parts of Bangladesh started reporting having trouble accessing Facebook.
“I have been having problems logging on since yesterday evening. When I managed to do that, there were no updates and the last ones were from Friday evening,” Mohammad Mohiuddin, a resident of the southern district of Barguna, told Anadolu Agency.
Mushfika, a user in Dhaka who did not wish to give her last name, also had a similar experience to share.
“I tried repeatedly to place calls through the Facebook Messenger app, but there was no connection,” she said.
Given the timing of the outage, there was much speculation in Bangladesh that the government had restricted social media connectivity to thwart the ongoing protests.
Dispelling the notion, a government official claimed the issue was caused by a “technical problem.”
“These claims are just not true. Our teams are working to resolve the problem and we hope that everything will be back to normal in a day or two,” Subrata Roy Maitra, vice chairman of the Bangladesh Telecom Regulatory Commission, told Anadolu Agency.
– ‘Rights of citizens under attack’
Friday’s violence has drawn widespread condemnation within Bangladesh and also from global rights groups.
The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party denounced “the attack on protesters” and urged the government “to allow people to exercise their right to freedom of assembly.”
Amnesty International criticized the government for what it said was “bloody repression” of peaceful protests.
“The scenes of violence we witnessed in Chattogram and Dhaka follow a worryingly familiar pattern of behavior by the Bangladeshi authorities,” said Sultan Mohammed Zakaria, the group’s South Asia researcher.
“The right to peaceful protest has come under concerted attack, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic, culminating in this type of bloody repression.”
The group said it had seen video footage of various protests that showed “unidentified people joined in attacks on protesters, with local media identifying them as being members of the ruling Awami League party and its student wing Bangladesh Chhatra League.”
Human Rights Watch, in a statement along with 10 other organizations, said governments joining the independence celebrations in Bangladesh “should know that Bangladeshis are enduring an escalating crackdown on human rights.”
They said the government of Bangladesh has been using the controversial Digital Security Act “to harass and indefinitely detain activists, journalists, and others critical of the government, resulting in a chilling effect on any expression of dissent.”
The rights groups urged the international community, including the US, UK, Canada, Australia, EU, and the UN, to impose sanctions on those responsible for these actions in Bangladesh.
– Premiers push on
The unrest in the country did little to dampen Bangladesh and India’s push to bolster ties.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina held talks with her counterpart Modi at her office in Dhaka on Saturday, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The duo jointly inaugurated a number of projects virtually, including an express train service between the two countries, and signed five memorandums of understanding to further bilateral and economic ties, according to the statement.