Innocent civilians are being doubly victimised by the politics of picketing as they bear the brunt of firebomb attacks by blockaders on the one hand, and are getting ensnared in police dragnets on the other.
As of yesterday, more than 30 people have been killed around the country in blockade violence, at least five of them in arson. Hundreds of people are writhing in pain from burn injuries at various hospitals.
Meanwhile, a section of dishonest policemen are allegedly harassing innocent people with arrests as authorities beef up security drives in the wake of violence during the BNP-led alliance’s nationwide indefinite blockade.
The immense personal loss and damage to property and lives from arson has been well documented.
The sufferings of blockade victims has cut across all manner of social or regional distinctions.
Many of the initial blockade victims were working people connected to the transportation industry: CNG-run autorickshaw drivers, bus drivers and transport helpers.
Take Jatrabari bus arson victim Nur-e-Alam, 40, who has suffered 48% burns and is suffering severe damage to his respiratory system. Doctors at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital’s Burn Institute say severe cases like his have become very common and the damage is often irreparable.
Our correspondent says that the beleaguered Burn Institute, serving over 500 patients in a facility designed to treat 300, is struggling to cope with the load and restore patients to health.
Take the case of the four Eden College students hit by arson or the case of two pharmacy students of Asia Pacific University, hit in a petrol bomb attack on their buses. Or the case of the twenty-two year old Ghorasal truck helper whose head was fatally injured when pickets threw a brick at his speeding truck.
One can take the stories almost at random and the picture that will emerge is that no place and no group in Bangladesh has been safe from random and increasingly violent attacks this last month.
But now they must deal with a new menace.
Over the last couple of weeks, there have been several reports of innocent people getting picked up and later shown arrested in political violence cases as trouble-makers.
There are allegations that those who cannot pay bribes or do not have connections in the police force are the ones implicated falsely with already-filed political cases.
Around 11:30pm on January 7, street vegetable vendor Mohammad Ripon was going home with his rickshaw-van after a long day’s work when a team from the Mirpur police station picked him up at the Matbor intersection in Dakkhin Pirerbagh area.
He was later shown arrested in a violence-related case. This Dhaka Tribune correspondent recently met his relatives near Dhaka Central Jail where Ripon is now.
This correspondent met another man in front of the jail who said his relative, Md Imran, who sells betel leaves and cigarettes on the roadside in the capital’s Mirpur, was also picked up a few days ago by a team from the same police station.
Sometimes law enforcers pick people up just on suspicion and without any proof or definite charge and frame them under section 54 of the penal code. Under this section, police can arrest anyone without a warrant but must produce them before a magistrate court within 24 hours.
On January 2, two people were picked up from the Shah Ali Market area near the Mirpur 10 roundabout around 11pm charging them with car-jacking. Later they were shown arrested under section 54 and placed before a court.
Shamim Reza, lawyer of one of the arrestees, Jahangir Alam, claimed that his client’s residence was nearby and they had come out to buy groceries that night.
According to Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) officials, at least 633 people have been arrested since the blockade began 21 days ago. A total of 149 cases have been filed with various police stations in the capital in connection with violence and anarchy.
When contacted, DMP Commissioner Asaduzzman Miah said: “We only arrest people on the basis of valid information and proof. It is just that sometimes we have to keep information secret for the sake of investigation.”
In addition to cases filed in the capital, around 800 violence-related cases have been filed across the country since the blockade began. In a countrywide joint law enforcement drive, around 11,000 people have so far been arrested in various parts of the country, although law enforcement agencies claim that the number is just 8,000.
The picking up of innocent people as suspected trouble-makers was going on in other parts of the country as well.
Kamrul Islam, 23, is a resident of Charfakira village of Companyganj in Noakhali district. He has been living in the United Arab Emirates for three years.
He came to Bangladesh on January 2 on vacation. But just a day later, Companyganj police arrested him terming him an “arsonist.” He had to pay a bond of Tk10,000 to getting free.
“This is totally uncalled for. Now I am thinking about leaving the country as soon as possible. I took two months’ leave from my work in the UAE. But I do not feel safe here,” he told our correspondent.
When contacted, Jalal Uddin Ahmed, assistant inspector general of police, said: “The police are conducting drives across the country to arrest arsonists and attackers. We have a zero-tolerance policy towards any policemen who harass innocent people.”