At least 15 people have been killed in clashes in Bangladesh between the police and Islamic conservatives who want the country to establish an anti-blasphemy law that carries the death penalty.
Clashes broke out between many thousands of members of the Hefazat-e-Islam – a coalition of around a dozen groups that has a 13-point agenda for the country – and police. The clashes mainly took place during a rally on Sunday but carried on late into Sunday night and Monday.
The Associated Press reported that the police had said that eight people, including three members of the security forces, were killed in the Kanchpur neighbourhood on the outskirts of the capital, while seven more died in the Motijheel commercial area.
After clashes that involved protesters setting fire to tyres and logs and the police responding with tear gas and rubber bullets, the authorities banned all further protests until midnight in an effort to control the violence.
Today it was reported that the leader of Hefazat-e-Islam had been sent out of Dhaka by the authorities.
The group Hefazat-e Islam has become increasingly vocal in pressing its demands to prime minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League-led government. Among the group’s demands are the reinsertion of the phrase “Absolute trust and faith in Allah” into the constitution of Bangladesh and the introduction of a blasphemy law.
Earlier this year, the group clashed with demonstrators who were demanding the execution of Islamist politicians of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, convicted of war crimes by a special tribunal examining alleged crimes that were perpetrated during the 1971 war of independence. Hefazat-e Islam, which is based in the port city of Chittagong, supported the leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami.
Among the victims of the February violence was a young blogger, Rajib Haider, who helped organise the so-called Shahbag campaign that rocked the country as it demanded the government take firm action against the conservatives. The movement wanted fundamentalist parties banned.
On Sunday, members of Hefazat-e Islam, which draws its support from the thousands of madrassas in Bangladesh repeated their demand for “death to atheist bloggers” and “exemplary” punishment for them. The coalition also wants the government to declare that the minority Ahmadi Muslim sect, which have long been persecuted in Pakistan, Bangladesh and elsewhere, are not genuine Muslims.
The demands of the coalition are a major challenge for Ms Hasina, as the Muslim majority nation prepares for an election later this year.
The government has insisted that the country of 160 million people should be run according to secular laws but the Islamists have received support from the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), headed by former prime minster Khaleda Zia.
“Enough is enough, the government will not tolerate this mayhem,” Syed Ashraful Islam, a cabinet minister, said in televised comments on Sunday, according to Bloomberg news. “The government will deal with any further violence aggressively.”
Biswajit Chanda, a professor at the University of Rajshahi, said he believed the government had seen off its biggest challenge from the group – namely making them return to the Chittagong.
“The prime minister has made clear in an interview with the BBC that it has no plans to introduce a new law relating to blasphemy but that the current laws are already sufficient,” he said. “The demands of Hefazat-e-Islam are not the demands of the common people.”