"It would be shameful if the Sheikh Hasina government is deploying party hoodlums to target students for demanding safe roads," says global rights group Human Rights Watch, as protests looked to be fizzling out in capital Dhaka.
A global human rights group on Tuesday accused Bangladesh's government of using abusive measures in handling student-led protests calling for safer roads.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement that ruling party men armed with sticks and machetes have swooped in on the protesters and journalists since the students took to the streets on July 29 after two students were killed in a road accident in the nation's capital, Dhaka.
"It would be shameful if the Sheikh Hasina government is deploying party hoodlums to target students for demanding safe roads," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) of the protests after around 150 people were injured in clashes with riot police and pro-government thugs wielding iron bars.
"Bangladeshi authorities must immediately halt the violence perpetrated by government supporters against protesters and journalists and respect the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly," he said.
Several journalists, including an Associated Press photographer, have been attacked.
The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has denied the allegations that its activists were involved, though reports and witnesses have given a different picture.
Protests fizzling out?
The protests looked to be fizzling out on Tuesday. Nine days of protests saw tens of thousands of teenagers and students paralyse traffic in the capital Dhaka and beyond. Eight buses were torched and hundreds of vehicles vandalised.
Police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, while allegedly pro-government mobs attacked demonstrators, photographers and even the US ambassador's car.
Students said on Tuesday that many went back to school as they feared further government repression if the protests continued.
"We are panicked. We hear that some of the students who took part in yesterday's protests have been arrested," a private university student told AFP news agency, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Another student, Ratul Abdullah, said four of his friends have been missing since yesterday.
"Today everything is normal. Students have returned to their classes," Mahbubur Rahman, head of Bangladesh's secondary and higher education authority, told AFP.
"So far no news of protests from any university," he said, adding that the authorities have shut down two universities in an effort to quell the protests.
Police remand of famed photographer halted
HRW also criticised the arrest of Shahidul Alam, a renowned photographer and activist, on charges of spreading false information about the protests and propaganda against the government under an information technology law.
The high court in Bangladesh on Tuesday, however, halted the seven-day police remand of a famed Bangladeshi photographer and social activist Shahidul Alam.
The court also ordered the jail authorities to send Alam to a hospital for medical treatment.
It came after a court on Monday allowed police to keep him in custody for seven days for questioning. His colleagues said Alam was tortured after he was detained on Sunday night.
The group also demanded punishment for the attackers, instead of the activists. It also said the government should ensure that security forces respect basic human rights standards on the use of force, including in dispersing demonstrations.
"Yet again, Bangladesh authorities seem determined to take abusive shortcuts to problems, and then denounce those who criticise," Adams of HRW said.
"The authorities should immediately release anyone, including Shahidul Alam, they have locked up for peaceful criticism."
Last week, Alam gave an interview to Al Jazeera English criticising the government's handling of the protests over traffic safety, which were triggered by the death of two students in an accident late last month.
.@amnesty declares @shahidul a Prisoner of Conscience, calls for his immediate and unconditional release https://t.co/Nm82htMCYo pic.twitter.com/Et6dF4iUtn— Omar Waraich (@OmarWaraich) August 7, 2018
Critics of government
On Monday, Amnesty International criticised Hasina's government for its handling of the situation.
Bangladesh's leading English-language Daily Star was also critical of the government's handling of the situation in an editorial on Tuesday.
"This ... is a violation of the media's constitutional right to free expression, press freedom and the right to information, and is totally unacceptable in a democracy," the editorial said.
"Unfortunately the image of the country has suffered, not because of what the students have done but because of the way the government has handled the issue."
Weeklong traffic chaos created by the protests began easing Monday, as immense demonstrations gave way to sporadic protests.
The protests grew last week to tens of thousands of people, becoming a major embarrassment to Hasina's government, which faces a general election later this year.
The student protesters have demanded tougher punishment for offences involving road accidents. Hasina said the students' demands were logical and she would work to meet them in phases.
She urged the students to go back to school. She has blamed the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, and its main ally Jamaat-e-Islami for an attempt to manipulate student anger to foment trouble.
Bus drivers lament harsh laws
Meanwhile, bus drivers in Dhaka, Bangladesh lamented on Tuesday the harsher laws that will now apply for fatal traffic accidents.
Bangladesh's Cabinet on Monday endorsed a draft law that would increase the maximum punishment for an accident leading to death to five years in jail, up from the current three years.
If someone is killed deliberately, a defendant could receive capital punishment, the law says.
"The law that the government is going to implement is a five-year prison term if there is a fatal accident. If I am in jail, how will I provide for my family? We have our children, wife, our father and mother. If I'm in jail, how they will survive? The family depends on us," bus driver Zahir Hossain said.