Bangladeshi authorities are “unlawfully attacking” student protesters in a crackdown after days of demonstrations while locking up people for “peaceful criticism”, a human rights group said.
Numerous witnesses claimed individuals linked to the ruling Awami League party have attacked protesters with machetes and sticks, according to a statement released on Monday by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“Yet again, Bangladesh authorities seem determined to take abusive shortcuts to problems, and then denounce those who criticise,” Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW, said in the statement.
“The authorities should immediately release anyone … they have locked up for peaceful criticism.”
Adams urged authorities to “prosecute those, including members of the ruling party’s youth supporters, who are attacking children with sticks and machetes”.
The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has denied the allegations that its activists were involved in such attacks.
One protester told the rights group, however, on Sunday several young men on motorcycles threatened about 500 mostly female students in the Uttara area of the capital, Dhaka.
“They said, ‘You must leave. The prime minister has asked us to come and sort you out’.”
The unidentified demonstrator reported the women and girls then fled but the men, who wore helmets to shield their identities, started beating them.
“The police just stood there. They were taking pictures and videos to be able to identify the protesters. They did not stop the attacks.”
Dozens of people have been injured in Dhaka, where security forces have used tear gas and baton charges to scatter protesters.
According to HRW, there have also been reports of sexual abuse during attacks on demonstrators.
Video also emerged of an Associated Press photographer being repeatedly struck by unidentified men wielding clubs. According to HRW, some 20 journalists have been beaten up for documenting attacks on protesters.
The rights group demanded an immediate investigation into reports that renowned photographer Shahidul Alam was beaten while in custody.
Alam was picked up at his Dhaka home late on Sunday, hours after an interview he gave to Al Jazeera. He accused police of “specifically ask[ing] for help from armed goons to combat unarmed students”.
Police official Moshiur Rahman said authorities were interrogating Alam for “giving false information to different media and for provocative comments”.
Alam’s family says he’s been tortured while in custody.
Al Jazeera’s Tanvir Chowdhury, reporting from Dhaka, said following Alam’s arrest a video posted on social media showed him limping while being held up by two people as he was purportedly taken to court.
Bangladesh’s High Court on Tuesday ordered authorities to immediately send Alam to the government-run Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University for treatment.
Hospital officials were also told to form a medical board to examine him, and submit report on his condition to the court on Wednesday.
Tens of thousands of students joined the demonstrations demanding safer roads, which began after a speeding bus killed two teenagers on July 29.
The students have brought parts of the country to a standstill by checking drivers’ licenses and marching through the streets.
Authorities say more than 300 vehicles have been vandalised since the protests started, and some bus companies took their vehicles off the road to prevent them from being damaged.
Bangladeshi authorities have promised to end reckless driving and regulate traffic, as well as introduce a new road safety act.
According to the National Committee to Protect Shipping, Roads and Railways, a private research group, more than 4,200 pedestrians were killed in road accidents last year – a 25 percent increase from 2016.