A prominent Bangladeshi photographer who gave live Facebook updates on a bloody government crackdown on student protesters has been arrested and says he was beaten while in police custody.
The crackdown began Saturday after six days of non-stop protests by high school students demanding road safety reforms after two classmates were struck and killed by a speeding bus.
“I was beaten. [They] washed my blood-stained Punjabi [shirt] and made me wear it again,” Shahidul Alam, 63, called out to reporters while being shifted from one van to another en route to court, where he was remanded to seven days in custody for questioning.
“I plead with the citizens of this country, please protest. People who love this country, please protest.”
About 30 to 35 men from the Dhaka Metropolitan Police forced Alam from his home around 10 p.m. Sunday, according to Alam’s wife, Rahnuma Ahmed, who said she was not in their flat at the time but came running upon hearing him scream.
Police official Moshiur Rahman confirmed that Alam was in police custody.
“He has been brought to our office early this morning. We are interrogating him for giving false information to different media and for provocative comments,” Rahman told reporters.
“He could not give proper answers. He admitted that these were his personal opinions.”
A case has been filed against him under the Bangladesh’s Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, according to a statement by Drik, Alam’s multimedia production company. The much-criticized ICT includes vague and overbroad provisions to target free speech and has been used against key civil society leaders and institutions, according to Human Rights Watch.
On Saturday, the government slowed mobile Internet service in the country and began using force to end the week-long student protests that brought many parts of Dhaka to a standstill.
In a Facebook Live update that afternoon, Alam stated that 67 injured students had been admitted to the Japanese Friendship hospital in Dhaka.
Clashes continued near universities on Monday as the students demanded the government mandate capital punishment for cases where pedestrians are killed by reckless drivers.
Responding to the protests, cabinet officials approved a draft of the Road Transport Bill 2018 increasing the maximum penalty for road accidents from three years to five.
“But the maximum punishment will be a death sentence if the investigation reveals that the errant diver intentionally caused the accident to kill someone,” Law Minister Anisul Huq told reporters.
On Sunday, in an interview with Al Jazeera, Alam said the protests were about something “very much larger” than road safety issues.
He blamed Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government for “the looting banks, the gagging the media,” extrajudicial killings and disappearances, as well as bribery and corruption.
“It really is that pent up energy, emotion, anger that has been let loose,” he said, and then spoke of police deploying “armed goons” against unarmed students.
“Today I was in the streets there are people with machetes in their hands chasing unarmed students and the police are standing by watching it happen. In some cases they are actually helping out.”
Up to 26 journalists covering the events on Saturday and Sunday suffered injuries, according to a BenarNews tally. Among them was AP news photographer AM Ahad. Social media videos of Ahad’s attack showed about a dozen men striking him with long sticks and batons.
International rights advocacy groups called for Alam’s release and an end to violence against journalists.
“There is no justification whatsoever for detaining anyone for solely peacefully expressing their views. His arrest marks a dangerous escalation of a crackdown by the government that has seen the police and vigilantes unleash violence against student protesters,” said Omar Waraich, Amnesty International’s Deputy South Asia director.
“Bangladesh authorities must immediately release Shahidul Alam without charge,” said CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Steven Butler in Washington.
“Authorities should also ensure that Alam and all journalists covering unrest in Dhaka are able to work without fear of attack or arrest.”
Students at East West University, North South University and Shahbagh Square on Monday clashed with police who used tear gas, water cannons and batons against protesters.
“At around noon, police charged with batons and lobbed tear gas shells without any provocation,” student protester Mamum, who asked that his full name not be used due to security concerns, told BenarNews.
Student Naser, who also asked that his full name not be used, told BenarNews he and the others were protesting the cabinet’s decision on the road transport bill.
“But we have seen that the maximum punishment for road accidents is only five years. We tried to protest it. But the police beat us,” he said.
A police spokesman said the actions were warranted.
“We have reports of trouble in Rampura, Bashundhara and Shahbagh. Officers had to take action as the protesters attacked the police,” Dhaka Metropolitan Police spokesman Masudur Rahman told BenarNews.
He said officers had made no arrests in connection with Saturday and Sunday attacks on journalists.
“We actually do not know who attacked the journalists. We have collected the video footage of the attack and are examining to detect who the attackers were,” Rahman said.
He also said police have not identified suspects who attacked vehicles carrying the U.S. ambassador Saturday night. Ambassador Marcia Bernicat and her security team were not injured.
The U.S. embassy, in a Facebook post on Sunday, said the protests “have united and captured the imagination of the whole country.”
“While we do not condone the actions of a few who have engaged in senseless property destruction, including of buses and other vehicles, 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 said.
UNICEF Bangladesh expressed concern about the violence, on its Facebook page.
“We are deeply concerned about the reports of violence and call on all for calm,” said Mia Seppo, the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh.
“The concerns expressed by youth about road safety are legitimate and a solution is needed for a mega city like Dhaka. A functioning public transport system should ensure the safety of all, including children, young girls and women.”