One person has been killed as hundreds of thousands of people continued protests in Bangladesh demanding that the government should introduce an anti-blasphemy law that would include the death penalty for bloggers who insult Islam.
A local leader of the Awami League, Nowsher Khan, was killed in Bhanga, a town south west of Dhaka on Saturday, when Hefazat-e-Islami party supporters clashed with Awami League supporters.
The protest on Saturday, tagged the “long march”, with many travelling from remote villages, was sparked after a group of bloggers allegedly began criticising conservative religious parties that are widely popular despite Bangladesh’s secular constitution.
Allegedly backed by Jamaat-e-Islami party, Hefazat-e-Islam, an Islamic group which draws support from tens of thousands of seminaries, organised the rally in support of its 13-point demand including enactment of a blasphemy law to prosecute and hang atheist bloggers.
Dhaka has been virtually cut off from the rest of the country since Friday afternoon, after secularists called a 22-hour nationwide strike to obstruct the march.
Both secular and Muslim protesters have taken to the streets over the war crimes trials of leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami party in cases related to the 1971 war against Pakistan in which three million people were killed and many thousands of women were molested.
Abdul Quader Mollah was sentenced to life in prison in February spurring youth protests calling for a death sentence for him instead. This led to counter-protests by religious parties in the country.
Clashes erupted days later when well-known protester and blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was killed, followed by more deaths in ensuing violence.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Shakil Ahmed, the head of output for Ekattor television in Bangladesh, said that the protests on Saturday were peaceful and had been fuelled by misinformation on both sides.
“Wrong information has been spread out by some of the activists,” said Ahmed.
She confirmed that protests were peaceful but said that one death had been reported on Friday night and another on Saturday morning.
An activist from the ruling Awami League was reportedly shot dead after the secularists clashed with hundreds of seminary students holding a rally in support of the march, local police chief Yasir Arafat told AFP news agency.
“Authorities have become more and more experienced in dealing with the protests … Right now they are trying to contain the crowds and are making sure that it does not get violent.”
The editor of the Dhaka Tribune, Zafar Sobhan however said that while the government had maintained a “neutral line” and was “scrambling” to prevent an “explosive” situation, he thinks it was unlikely that a blasphemy law would be introduced.
He said that the march was less about a blasphemy law but was more of a reaction to calls for the death penalty for political party leaders being tried for war crimes.
“The march is more of a, if you [the bloggers] are going to demand the death penalty against us [the political party leaders, then we are going to demand a death penalty against you.”
Last week, four online writers were arrested on charges of hurting religious sentiment through their Internet writings against Islam.
Sobhan said the arrests were being seen as a “heavy-handed measure” to appease Islamists.
Operators of top Bangladeshi blogs blacked out their sites on Thursday to protest against the government move.
They say the government has been kowtowing to the religious activists.
Home Minister Muhiuddin Khan on Wednesday said the government had identified 11 bloggers, including the four detainees, who had hurt the religious sentiments of the nation’s majority Muslim population.
The government has blocked about a dozen websites and blogs to stem the unrest. It has also set up a panel, which includes intelligence chiefs, to monitor blasphemy on social media.
Under the country’s cyber laws, a blogger or Internet writer can face up to ten years in jail for defaming a religion. [AlJazeera]