Bangladesh detains online activists over protest ‘rumours’

Protesters hold placards as they protest against the attacks on journalist in Bangladesh during the recent student movement, in Kolkata on August 8, 2018.
Protesters hold placards as they protest against the attacks on journalist in Bangladesh during the recent student movement, in Kolkata on August 8, 2018.
Image: Dibyangshu Sarka / AFP

Bangladesh police have arrested at least 12 social media activists accused of spreading rumours on Facebook during student protests last week that left about 1,000 people injured, a top official said Thursday.

Dhaka and other cities were this month paralysed by more than a week of protests that saw tens of thousands of school and college students take to the streets.

Rights groups have criticised the police response to the demonstrations, including the high-profile arrests of a renowned photographer, television actress and senior journalist during the protests.

Authorities have investigated about 1,000 Facebook accounts they claim incited violence during the unrest, said Dhaka police deputy commissioner Nazmul Islam. “We have so far arrested 12 people for spreading rumours. Hopefully in the next couple of days we will arrest more people,” he said.

Some of those arrested had claimed four girls were raped and two protesters were killed at the height of the demonstrations on Saturday, Islam added. Bangladesh’s internet law allows the regulation of social media and internet comment but rights groups accused the government of using the internet laws to crackdown on legitimate and peaceful dissent.

Almost 1,000 people were wounded, 45 police were also wounded seriously.

Amnesty International has called the legislation “draconian” and the Freedom House watchdog group says it has “created a climate of intimidation“.

Award-winning photographer Shahidul Alam, television actor Kazi Naushaba and the chief executive of an online news outlet were among those who were arrested and charged under the internet laws during the unrest. Alam was detained on Sunday after giving an interview to Al Jazeera television and commenting on the demonstrations on Facebook.

He said he was beaten while in custody. Islam said rumours spread online had led to the “destruction of 382 public vehicles, including eight police vehicles. Among those three police vehicles were burnt".

“Almost 1,000 people were wounded, 45 police were also wounded seriously,” he added.

Protesters across Bangladesh demanded better safety on Bangladesh’s chaotic, corruption-riddled transport network after a bus killed two teens in late July. At the height of the protests, hundreds of students set up roadblocks across Dhaka, checking whether cars and buses had valid licences and vehicle safety certificates.

Police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets while alleged pro-government groups attacked demonstrators, photographers and even the US ambassador’s car.

The police action drew international attention, with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government criticised by the United Nations, United States and rights groups.

Analysts said the protests reflected simmering discontent among Bangladeshi youth and highlighted broader issues including the absence of public accountability and the rule of law.

Most protesters had returned to school this week amid fears of further government repression if the unrest continued, according to student activists. 

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