Fourteen Dead in Bangladesh as Police Clash With Protesters

Clashes between Bangladeshi police and members of an Islamic group demanding the introduction of blasphemy laws left 14 people dead and 250 wounded in Dhaka and surrounding districts.

Police in combat gear patrolled the capital while armored vehicles were stationed in the main business district, footage from local television stations showed. Streets were littered with burned tires and broken bricks.

The clashes, the latest between conservative Islamic groups and security forces in Bangladesh this year, prompted police to ban rallies in the capital. They come as the country seeks to recover from its worst industrial disaster, the April 24 collapse of an eight-story building that killed 640 garment workers.

“Enough is enough, the government will not tolerate this mayhem,” Syed Ashraful Islam, a cabinet minister, said in televised comments yesterday. “The government will deal with any further violence aggressively.”

Hefajat-e-Islam, a radical group based in the southern seaport city of Chittagong, rallied as many as 200,000 supporters in Dhaka yesterday. Hefajat’s protest is backed by the Jamaat-e-Islami, whose leaders are on trial for alleged war crimes committed during the country’s independence struggle in 1971.

Ten of those killed in the clashes, including three security officers, died in Narayanganj, 15 kilometers (nine miles) from Dhaka, police inspector Mozammel Hoque said by phone.

Current Violence

The war crimes hearings sparked the current violence. As the first verdicts were delivered this year, online activists and youth groups, gathering in the capital’s Shahbag square and through postings on Facebook and other social media, called for those found guilty to be sentenced to death.

Jamaat and Hefajat took to the streets demanding new blasphemy laws to punish bloggers they accused of maligning Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. Hefajat is seeking the release of Islamic scholars and madrassah students detained by police since deadly protests erupted over the tribunal’s rulings.

The protests began with with Hefajat activists blocking main roads in and out of Dhaka. As the protests turned violent, gunfire broke out. Police used plastic bullets and tear gas to break up the demonstrations.

Dhaka Metropolitan Police banned all rallies and processions in the capital, according to a statement. Both ruling and opposition parties called off events scheduled for this afternoon.

‘Evil Force’

“It’s an evil force in society that attacked the police,” Hassan Mahmood Khandker, inspector general of police, told reporters in Dhaka today. “We must bring them to justice.”

The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed has rejected the groups’ demands and their accusations that the war crimes hearings are politically motivated.

The European Union is considering trade sanctions after the building collapse, which drew attention to the unsafe conditions of garment workers in the country.