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The accident that sparked angry student protests in Bangladesh

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Bangladesh’s crowded capital of Dhaka has been in a state of gridlock over the past week, reported Asian Correspondent (Malaysia).

The cause of the congestion? Not of the motorised kind. Instead, the streets of the city of 18 million are being choked this time by tens of thousands of angry students demanding changes to transport laws.

The students were driven to the streets after a road accident on July 29 which saw the deaths of two of their peers. According to reports, a driver for a private bus company ran over the two schoolchildren – a boy and a girl – during an apparent race with another driver for passengers, subsequently killing them.

When the incident hit social channels, widespread anger spread online, culminating in thousands of youngsters flooding the capital to demand justice. The demonstration turned violent, resulting in running scenes of riots and chaos as students blocked roads to bring the capital to a standstill.

Some university students who defied government warnings to end the protest the bricks at riot police, with some taking processions through the city, the AFP reported.

Students told AFP that police fired rubber bullets at protesters in Bashundhara neighbourhood, which is home to two private universities, and that members of the student wing of the ruling Awami League party attacked the protesters with sticks and bricks.

Pro-government supports are also holding violent counter-protests against the students and media which have caused hundreds of injuries.

Giving in to the pressure, the government approved the maximum jail time for rash driving from five years to three, the law minister said.

“As per the proposed law, an accused has to face five years of jail for negligent driving (leading to death),” Law Minister Anisul Huq said after a cabinet meeting.

He added the deliberate running over of people will draw murder charges and carry the death sentence.

Mob justice
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Bangladesh authorities are arresting students and targeting activists and journalists who are highlighting the abuses.

Police also arrested social activist and photographer Shahidul Alam who had posted comments that a student wing of the ruling party was trying to attack the protesters.

Shahidul’s organisation, Drik Picture Library, said 30 to 35 men in plain clothes swept into his Dhaka apartment building, claiming to be police detectives, and whisked him away in a car to be taken to custody.

However, Dhaka’s additional deputy commissioner of police, Obaidur Rahman, said Shahidul was arrested on charges of spreading rumours on social media, aiming to incite violence.

HRW called for an immediate investigation into reports that renowned photographer and activist, Shahidul Alam, was beaten while in custody.

Citing numerous witnesses, the rights group said members of the 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, also reported that in some areas police stood by while children were beaten up by Awami League supporters.

Some of the counter-protestors, HRW said, wore helmets to hide their identity and some 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 criticise,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

“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.”

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A global human rights group accused Bangladesh's government of using abusive measures in handling student-led protests calling for safer roads, reported New Indian Express (India).

New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement that ruling party men armed with sticks and machetes have swooped in on the protesters and journalists since the students took to the streets on July 29 after two students were killed in a road accident in the nation's capital, Dhaka.

Several journalists, including an Associated Press photographer, have been attacked. The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has denied the allegations that its activists were involved, though reports and witnesses have given a different picture.

"It would be shameful if the Sheikh Hasina government is deploying party hoodlums to target students for demanding safe roads," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

"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," he said.

The rights group also criticized the arrest of Shahidul Alam, a renowned photographer and activist, on charges of spreading false information about the protests and propaganda against the government under an information technology law. A court on Monday allowed police to keep him in custody for seven days for questioning. His colleagues said Alam was tortured after he was detained on Sunday night.

The group also demanded punishment for the attackers, instead of the activists. It also said the government should ensure that security forces respect basic human rights standards on the use of force, including in dispersing demonstrations.

"Yet again, Bangladesh authorities seem determined to take abusive shortcuts to problems, and then denounce those who criticize," Adams said. "The authorities should immediately release anyone, including Shahidul Alam, they have locked up for peaceful criticism."

Amnesty International criticized Hasina's government for its handling of the situation.

Bangladesh's leading English-language Daily Star was also critical of the government's handling of the situation in an editorial on Tuesday.

"This ... is a violation of the media's constitutional right to free expression, press freedom and the right to information, and is totally unacceptable in a democracy," the editorial said. "Unfortunately the image of the country has suffered, not because of what the students have done but because of the way the government has handled the issue."

Weeklong traffic chaos created by the protests began easing Monday, as immense demonstrations gave way to sporadic protests.

The protests grew last week to tens of thousands of people, becoming a major embarrassment to Hasina's government, which faces a general election later this year.

Bangladesh's Cabinet endorsed a draft law that would increase the maximum punishment for an accident leading to death to five years in jail, up from the current three years. If someone is killed deliberately, a defendant could receive capital punishment, the law says.

The student protesters have demanded tougher punishment for offenses involving road accidents. Hasina said the students' demands were logical and she would work to meet them in phases.

She urged the students to go back to school. She has blamed the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, and its main ally Jamaat-e-Islami for an attempt to manipulate student anger to foment trouble.

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