US Embassy criticises Bangladesh's 'brutal attacks and violence' against students' peaceful protest against unsafe roads

US Embassy criticises Bangladesh's 'brutal attacks and violence' against students' peaceful protest against unsafe roads

Bangladesh is criticised by the US Embassy for their heavy-handed response to recent road safety protests by students

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Police fire teargas grenades and disperse student protesters during the eight-day protest demanding safer roads in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Photos: EPA

Bangladesh’s information minister accused the US Embassy on Tuesday of “poking its nose” into the country’s domestic affairs, as he responded to a Facebook post that criticised authorities’ heavy-handed response to road safety protests by students.

The minister’s criticism marked the latest shot in Bangladesh’s increasing fraught relations with the United States. It came as the government faced embarrassing, but now quieting down, student protests in Dhaka.

Speaking to reporters in his office on Tuesday, Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu said, “By issuing this statement [on Facebook], the US Embassy took an ill attempt of poking [its] nose in Bangladesh’s internal politics in an indecent way. We condemn this.”

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In huge protests over the past week, tens of thousands of university students and school children brought the world’s attention to Bangladeshi authorities’ lax enforcement of road rules after two students were hit by a speeding bus.

They blocked roads and checked drivers’ licenses to highlight how poorly traffic rules are enforced. Adding to the government’s embarrassment over the protests, among those caught breaking rules were government ministers. In one instance, protesters asked a minister to walk to his destination because his driver was not carrying a valid license. Another minister’s car was turned back for driving against the flow of traffic on a busy road.

But over the weekend, the initially peaceful protests turned violent, and police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at crowds.

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The embassy’s Facebook post on Sunday afternoon noted that some students were involved in violence, but the message was directed primarily against the police use of force against students.

“Nothing can justify the brutal attacks and violence over the weekend against the thousands of young people who have been peacefully exercising their democratic rights in supporting a safer Bangladesh,” it read.

Dhaka University students protesters gather on the road during the eight-day protest
Photo: EPA

On Monday, the government adopted tougher penalties for reckless drivers, promising to introduce the death penalty for deliberate road deaths.

But the apparent concession came with warnings - police arrested a prominent photographer who criticised the government on television.

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By Tuesday morning, an eerie calm had replaced the festive commotion of the protests in Dhaka.

Many students stayed off the streets, fearing further violence and reprisals, as parents warned them to stay indoors.

But many also celebrated what the protests have achieved.

“It’s good to see people have become more aware of our traffic rules after our protests,” said Rabbi Hasan, a student at Dhaka’s Government Laboratory College.

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Mir Rezaul Alam, who oversees Dhaka’s traffic police, reported a big increase in cases filed against rule breakers. “Yesterday we filed about 8,500 cases, when the average case was 3,000 in the past. We are strictly enforcing the law, and people are cooperating,” he said.

“The protests showed ... what should be done, what the government should do, what the people should do,” said Illias Kanchon, a Bangladeshi movie star and advocate for road safety. “You can see a result already today in Dhaka. The number of vehicles is very limited today. The reason is that no one is taking their car out without having the proper document or proper license for their driver,”

Others felt disappointed that the protests became political, increasingly attacking the ruling Awami League party and drifting from the issue of road safety.

At first, “I thought it was my moral duty” to protest, said Sharif Adnan, a student at Dhaka University. “But I did not join the protest later when I felt it was being politicised. Due to this politicisation, an ethical protest literally failed.”

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