Violence Intensifies as Student Protests Spread in BangladeshDELHI — Students at several university campuses in Bangladesh clashed with police officers in riot gear on Monday, as the government met what began as a students’ road-safety protest with escalating force and panic.
Dhaka, the capital, was in its ninth day of widespread protests, and rights advocates said they feared an increasingly violent response from the government, led by the Awami League, which is due to face elections in December.
A prominent photojournalist, Shahidul Alam, was arrested on Sunday night, his wife said, and rights groups including Amnesty International said they were looking into reports of four more arrests of activists that they called unjustified.
In a text message on Monday, a student protester at the East West University described seeking refuge inside a classroom after being attacked by police officers with tear gas and rubber bullets. He added that supporters of the government had assaulted them in tandem with the police, throwing rocks and wielding makeshift clubs.
A professor at a second university said he was barricaded with students inside a classroom on Monday afternoon, with the smell of tear gas hanging in the air. The professor and student both requested anonymity, fearing arrest.
But there was less sign on Monday of the middle school and high school students who along with their parents had previously formed the backbone of the protests. Several students said their teachers had warned them that those missing school would be reported to the authorities, leading to a knock on the door of their family home and possible arrest.
“Repression has been a trademark of this government over the past five years,” said Omar Waraich, the deputy director for South Asia at Amnesty International. “Whether it is journalists, the opposition or peaceful protesters, dissent has never been tolerated.”
Asaduzzaman Khan, Bangladesh’s minister for home affairs, denied that the police or Awami League members had used violence to quell dissent. He accused opposition parties of infiltrating the protests and “trying to create a violent situation.”
“We have repeatedly accepted the demands of the school and college students for better road safety conditions, and we have asked them to go back to their homes as we have started to implement their demands,” he said.
Bangladeshi government officials have pointed to a recording released over the weekend that they say shows an opposition politician ordering an activist to rally more people to the streets to piggyback off the student movement. But a diplomat in Dhaka, who asked for anonymity to speak on a politically sensitive question, said the student movement appeared organic and genuine, and the opposition’s role limited.
The catalyst was the death of two teenagers on July 29, when a bus racing a rival to a stop plowed into a crowd of waiting would-be passengers.
Students, some accompanied by their parents, responded by erecting checkpoints across the city, forcing motorists — including police officers and government ministers — to produce valid drivers licenses and car registrations. Those who could not do so, or who they said they had seen violating other traffic laws, they handed over to the police.
The government’s response to the protests was initially cautious, but the police began to use force against protesters on Saturday.
For many, the bus crash has come to symbolize larger problems of poor governance, nepotism and corruption. Bangladesh’s transportation sector has long operated above the law, with powerful officials either owning private bus companies or relying on bus and rickshaw drivers for political support. Transportation companies are accused of bribing the police to avoid investigation even of deadly accidents.
Over 7,000 people died in traffic accidents in the country last year, according to Bangladesh Passengers Welfare Association. The World Health Organization estimates that the country’s road-traffic death rate in 2013 was 13.6 deaths per 100,000 people, lower than in India or Pakistan but far higher than in America or Europe.
On Monday, in an effort to contain the protests, the government endorsed a draft law to increase the maximum sentence for fatal road accidents to five years from three. But protesters say the problem is largely about poor implementation of existing laws.
Clashes intensified as Monday evening approached.
University students largely sat out last week’s protests, but have been protesting for months about a quota system for government jobs and university spots that they claim is plagued by nepotism and corruption. When the police began to use force, the university students decided to link their cause to those of their peers in middle and high schools.
Mr. Waraich of Amnesty International suggested that the government’s sudden use of force reflected anxiety about the Awami League’s electoral prospects.
“I think they are worried that any protests against the government could bring the opposition out on the street,” he said. “They want to crush these protests immediately — they see them for not just what they are but what they could be. As elections loom, they are nervous about people coming out into the streets.”
Mr. Alam, the photojournalist, was detained on Sunday night after posting a Facebook video about the protest and giving an interview to the television news network Al Jazeera criticizing the violence of the government’s response.
His wife, Rahnuma Ahmed, said at a news conference on Monday that about 35 men in civilian clothes had forced him into an unmarked car, which then drove away. She said he had been taken by the Detective Branch, part of the police force, which she accused of confiscating nearby CCTV cameras that recorded the arrest.
The police confirmed on Monday that they had detained Mr. Alam.
The Associated Press said at least five journalists had been attacked at the protests on Sunday, including one of its photographers, who was briefly hospitalized with a head injury.
“Bangladesh authorities must immediately release Shahidul Alam without charge,” said Steven Butler, the Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Authorities should also ensure that Alam and all journalists covering unrest in Dhaka are able to work without fear of attack or arrest.”