Bangladesh clashes rage over blasphemy law

Leader of Hifazat-e-Islam forced to exit Dhaka after clashes between group’s supporters and police leave many dead.

As violence moves beyond the Bangladesh capital the man at the head of the group that instigated the fatal protests was driven out of Dhaka under police escort.

Allama Shah Ahmad Shafi was taken out of the Hifazat-e-Islam headquarters in Dhaka on Monday before being put on a plane to the second city Chittagong.

Police emphasised that the leader had not been arrested.

The violence began spilling beyond the capital on Monday, with at least two police officers and a border guard reported dead in Narayanganj, about 20 kilometres outside Dhaka.

Clashes between security forces and demonstrators that raged in the centre of Dhaka left at least 14 people dead on Sunday.

More than 10,000 forces drawn from police, the elite Rapid Action Battalion and paramilitary Border Guard Bangladesh jointly launched a drive late on Sunday to clear demonstrators from a major thoroughfare in Dhaka.

But while the main street was largely cleared, protesters scattered into side streets and continued to battle police, officials said early on Monday.

The security forces fired numerous rubber bullets and teargas when they launched the eviction drive.

The protesters, who are demanding an anti-blasphemy law with provision for the death penalty, had announced their determination to shut down Bangladesh’s main business hub Motijheel until the government accepts their demands.

Al Jazeera’s special correspondent in Dhaka, who we are not naming because of reporting restrictions, said there was now a ban on rallies in the city.

Despite this, both the opposition and ruling party have called for rallies to take place on Monday. The ruling party later cancelled its march.

The turmoil comes as the government struggles to deal with outrage over the collapse of a factory building north-west of Dhaka, where the death toll has risen to 610 since the late April accident. Rescue workers were still searching through the rubble.

‘Religion of peace’

In the hours after security forces started evicting the activists and supporters of Hefazat-e-Islami, at least 50 people, including policemen were also injured, a police officer who took part in the operation said.

Violence in Bangladesh goes beyond religious reasons

Police also arrested a number of protesters.

Security forces got involved after what began as a scheduled demonstration exceeded its time limit and turned violent. Demonstrators attacked the headquarters of the ruling Awami League party, set fire to more than 100 shops and at least 50 parked cars, and vandalised many other buildings.

Supporters of Hifazat-e-Islam group carried sticks and had blocked major entry points to the city, sealing off the capital.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed has said the existing laws already have sufficient safeguards to address the protesters’ concerns. On Friday, she said that the government “will not allow any chaos in the name of Islam, a religion of peace.”

The demonstrators demanded mandatory religious education and the end to what they described as an “anti-Islam” policy that calls for gender equality.

Death penalty demanded

Hifazat, a newly created religious group, is demanding the death penalty for all those who defame Islam.

It said it held the mass protest to push a 13-point list of demands which also include a ban on men and women mixing freely together and the restoration of pledges to Allah in the constitution.

Last month activists organised a general strike as well as a gathering of hundreds of thousands of its activists, in what experts said was the country’s largest political gathering in decades.

Critics have branded Hifazat’s demands as a charter for turning Bangladesh into a country like Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Women workers including female garment labourers have vented their anger at the group’s call to segregate the sexes.

Sheikh Hasina has been leading a secular government in the Muslim-majority country since 2009.