At least four people were killed Friday as thousands of Islamists took to the streets and clashed with police across Bangladesh including in the capital Dhaka, police and officials said.
Police fired bullets and tear gas shells while the rioters exploded a series of hand-made bombs. Demonstrators fought pitched battles with police, demanding punishment of bloggers who they accused of maligning Islam and the Prophet Mohammed.
The bloggers, who have had an active role in the ongoing campaign at Dhaka’s Shahbagh Square to ban Bangladesh’s Jamaat-e-Islami party and who support the death penalty for those guilty of wartime crimes from more than four decades ago, denied the accusations and said that the Islamist groups were smearing hate campaign against them.
Police and witnesses said thousands of people in support of a call given by a coalition of 12 Islamic parties came out of the mosques after Friday’s “juma prayer” and attacked police and journalists. They ransacked venues in different parts of the country where support for the ban on Jamaat-e-Islami and support for the death penalty were demanded.
The attacks came a day after protesters at Shahbagh Square suspended an around-the-clock sit-in after 17 days.
Bangladesh minister for home affairs Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir said fundamentalists were using mosques and carried out violence in the name of Islam.
State Minister for Law Quamrul Islam blamed Jamaat for “orchestrating the countrywide violence”.
The Shahbagh sit-in began on February 5, when an International War Crimes Tribunal sentenced Abdul Quader Mollah, a leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, to life in prison on war-crimes charges — including murder — that date back to the country’s war of independence in 1971.
The Shahbagh protesters, many of them students, demanded that Mollah’s penalty be changed to death.
The protests turned deadly outside Shahbagh over the past three weeks as over a dozen people were killed after Jamaat-e-Islami enforced a series of general strikes across Bangladesh, clashing with police and ruling-party supporters.
In the Mirpur section of Dhaka, police a week ago recovered the body of Ahmed Rajib Haider, who had participated in the Shahbagh Square protests.
Police said masked men wielding machetes and knives attacked the young architect and blogger in front of his residence in Pallabi, Mirpur, and then fled.
No one has claimed responsibility for the killing, but Islamists during Friday’s protests said Rajib was one of the bloggers who insulted Islam and its prophet in his blog.
The Islamist parties also call another general strike for Sunday across Bangladesh in protest against Friday’s killings.
Jamaat-e-Islami said its members would continue to protest, as many of its leaders were behind bars facing charges of murder, arson, looting and rape stemming from the war of independence.
They said the war-crimes trials, begun after more than 40 years of independence, were being carried out with “ill political motive.”
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has shown no sign of backing down, saying the trials will be completed at any cost.
The government, which promised in its election pledges in 2008 to complete the war-crimes trials, set up the tribunals in 2010.
Mollah is the first Jamaat-e-Islami leader convicted in a war-crimes case by the tribunal.
Muslim-majority Bangladesh was the eastern part of Pakistan until it gained independence in 1971 in a war that killed 3 million people.