A global human rights group on Tuesday accused Bangladesh's government of using abusive measures in handling student-led protests calling for safer roads.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) 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, HRW Asia director.
“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 criticised 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 criticise,” Adams said. “The authorities should immediately release anyone, including Shahidul Alam, they have locked up for peaceful criticism.”
On Monday, Amnesty International criticised 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 on Monday 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.