Thousands protested across Bangladesh on Monday over the police killing of four people during clashes stemming from a Facebook post that criticized the Prophet Muhammad and angered Muslims.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called for calm, saying a Muslim man had hacked the account of a Hindu youth and allegedly insulted the Prophet on his Facebook page, triggering clashes during mass demonstrations on Sunday in Borhanuddin town in Bhola district, about 115 km (72 miles) south of the capital Dhaka.
“Rumors are being spread in Facebook to create an environment of anarchy,” Hasina said in a speech in Dhaka. “Those who want to fish in troubled waters, we will find them and take action against them.”
“It is not acceptable to hurt people’s religious sentiments,” she said.
More than 200 police officers from neighboring districts have been deployed to provide extra security in Bhola, officials said.
Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council, the largest interfaith organization of religious minority groups in the country, told reporters that unidentified men armed with rocks attacked several religious places of worship in Bhola.
“Some five to six temples and eight to nine houses have been attacked at Borhanuddin,” Rana Dasgupta, the council’s secretary-general, told reporters in Dhaka, citing information received from a religious leader in Bhola. BenarNews could not confirm Dasgupta’s claim.
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said police were forced to open fire after they came under attack from mobs.
“As per primary information, police were helpless to open fire in self-defense, as the crowd attacked them desperately,” he told reporters. An inquiry has been launched to determine if there was any negligence by law enforcers, he added.
At least 30 police officers and dozens of civilians suffered injuries in the clashes, Sheikh Sabbir Hossain, Bhola police assistant superintendent, told reporters.
On Monday, Bhola officials imposed a ban on gatherings and public demonstrations.
“We are on the vigil, so that none can organize unruly assemblies or demonstrations beyond permission of the authorities,” Bhola Deputy Commissioner Masud Alam Siddik told reporters.
But protest organizers told a news conference that they had granted a 72-hour deadline for authorities to meet six demands, including capital punishment to be taken against the Hindu youth whose account was used to make derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad.
“We have postponed our rally. But we will announce tougher movement, if the government does not implement our six-point demands within 72 hours,” said Moulana Bashir Uddin, convener of the All-Party Muslim Unity Council.
Local police officials said they would examine the demonstrators’ demands.
Meanwhile, Minister Kamal said that his staff had communicated with Facebook’s office in Singapore to establish the circumstances in which the controversial post was made.
“Everything will be cleared within one or two days,” he said.
Opposition party plans protests
Police have filed charges against 5,000 people over the incident, Enamul Huq, officer-in-charge of the Borhanuddin police station, told BenarNews on Monday.
The charges included causing chaos and attacks on police, he said.
Two youths have been arrested on suspicion of involvement in the hacking of the Hindu man’s Facebook account and demanding money from him, police said.
Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main opposition party, has declared plans to hold protests as it denounced the killings.
“We condemn the shooting on innocent people by police in Bhola and demand punishment of the offenders,” BNP standing Committee member Khandker Mosharraf Hossain told reporters in Dhaka on Monday.
Bangladesh, a South Asian nation of more than 163 million people, is more than 89 percent Muslim with about 9.5 percent Hindu residents. It officially is secular.
The country has experienced violence caused by communal tension, including a spate of targeted killings that authorities blamed on militants between 2013 and 2016, in which religious minorities and secularist bloggers had been killed.
Seven years ago, Muslim mobs torched Buddhist monasteries and homes in coastal Cox’s Bazar district after a Buddhist youth allegedly posted a defamatory photo online of the Quran.