As protests in solidarity with Black American George Floyd, killed by police in the state of Minnesota, spread across the globe, Bangladeshi students mark two years since two movements were brutally crushed by police and security forces in the country. Two years of impunity for attacks and gross violations of human rights of young people demanding simple government reforms.

In April 2018, university student protesters took to the streets to demand reforms to the national quota system in government employment, which had left highly-educated graduates from poorer sections of society with menial jobs and poor future prospects. The protests broke out amid growing inequality and government’s and politicians’ failures to address this problem. A few months later, a bus ran over two schoolchildren leading in Dhaka to spontaneous protests throughout the country. Citizens were demanding the enforcement of basic road safety laws.

Police and other security forces, as well as ruling-party-aligned cadres, responded with force to both movements, using teargas, rubber bullets, high-pressure hot water cannons and other makeshift weapons. The police then launched an open-ended and unspecific chargesheet that allowed them to round up student leaders and human rights defenders, some of whom complained of torture while in police detention.

Democracy under attack

Journalists documenting the events were openly attacked and threatened. Prominent photojournalist Shahidul Alam was detained on 5 August, 2018, and held until 20 November, 2018 – more than 100 days – after giving an interview to an international media channel.

Police pursued one student organizer and raided her family’s home in the middle of the night. According to her testimony, 30 police officers were part of the raid. “When they finally found the house where I was sleeping, they broke open the door of my room and flashed a torchlight on my face,” she recounted. “Without saying a word, they jumped on me, started calling me names and hitting me. When I protested, they smacked my head hard until my head started spinning. Then a senior police officer walked into the room and slapped me hard, once on each cheek. I protested again, saying that as men they cannot do this to me, but in response they dragged me to the courtyard and started beating me with sugarcanes. I felt like my teeth were going to fall out because my cheeks and head were hurting so much.”

Bangladeshi students march along a street during a student protest in Dhaka following the deaths of two college students in a road accident. Credit: AFP

Female student protesters and organizers were also targeted on social media with harassment and threats of rape and violence. Pictures of the women were circulated on Facebook and other social media platforms, posted by members of the ruling party’s student wing, the Bangladesh Chhatra League. Despite the widespread and public nature of these threats, police and university administrators did nothing for the security of these students.

During the road safety protests, police rounded up dozens of protesters and detained them for up to 24 hours. As many as 52 private school students were arrested, charged and kept in detention for a minimum of two weeks. Their bail requests were repeatedly denied.

After an 18-month research and investigation, Front Line Defenders, CIVICUS and South Asians for Human Rights, released their report into the protests and the subsequent violations, Crushing Student Protests: Bangladesh’s Repression of the Quota Reform & Road Safety Movements. The report calls for accountability, and for the state to drop charges still pending against student HRDs and review the previous convictions against protesters and student organisers.

This moment could not be more poignant for Bangladesh to take action. Over the past two years, as protests have mounted around the world – from Chile to Mexico and Hong Kong to India – against social, environmental, economic and political issues, a common issue has been how police have responded to peaceful protest and how fundamental rights can be respected and safeguarded.

The government and police in Bangladesh failed in 2018. In 2020, it is time to address the impunity, reform the police and recommit to human and civil rights in the country. Otherwise the main lesson for students of this generation of protesters will be that the state does not care for them. And what would that mean for Bangladesh’s future?

Adam Shapiro is the Head of Communications at Front Line Defenders.