2013 Shapla Square protests
|2013 Operation at Motijheel Shapla Chattar|
|Part of 2013 Bangladesh political violence|
|Date||5 May 2013 – 6 May 2013;|
|Caused by||2013 Bangladesh political violence|
|Methods||Sit-in, occupation of public square|
|Parties to the civil conflict|
The Shapla Square protests, or the Motijheel massacre, (also known as Operation Shapla or Operation Flash Out by security forces) refers to the protests, and subsequent shootings, of 5 and 6 May 2013 at Shapla Square located in the Motijheel district, the main financial area of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The protests were organized by the Islamist pressure group, Hefazat-e Islam, who were demanding the enactment of a blasphemy law. The government responded to the protests by cracking down on the protesters using a combined force drawn from the police, Rapid Action Battalion and paramilitary Border Guard Bangladesh to drive the protesters out of Shapla Square.
Following the events at Motijheel, protests in other parts of the country also broke out, during which 27 people died, although different sources report casualty numbers ranging from 20 to 61. The opposition party BNP initially claimed thousands of Hefazat activists were killed during the operation, but this was disputed by the government. Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations put the total death toll at above 50, but rights groups have termed the events as a massacre. Initial attempts to dispute the chain of events were thwarted due to the government closure of two television channels, Diganta Television and Islamic TV, which were live telecasting the operation.
13 point demand
In early 2013, Hefajat-e Islam emerged as a pressure group composed of madrassah teachers and students, led by Shah Ahmad Shafi, rector of Hathazari Madrasah. The group became particularly active after allegations surfaced that some protesters in the Shahbag protests were involved in the publishing of content offensive to Muslims on blogs, including the depiction of Muhammad as a pornographic character. On 6 April 2013, its supporters made a long-march to promote their 13-point charter, which included:
- Restoration the phrase "Complete faith and trust in the Almighty Allah" in the constitution
- Enact a blasphemy law;
- Taking measures for punishment of "atheist bloggers," who led the Shahbagh movement, and anti-Islam activists who made "derogatory remarks" against the Muhammad.
- Stopping "infiltration of all 'alien-culture', in the name of individual’s freedom of expression, including free mixing of male and female" and candle lighting. Stopping harassment of women, open fornication and adultery, sexual harassment, all forms of violence against women and an end to the tradition of dowry;
- Make Islamic education mandatory from primary to higher secondary levels, cancelling the women's, and anti-religion, education policy.
- Declaration of Ahmadiyyas as non-Muslim.
- Stopping the setting up of sculptures at intersections, schools, colleges and universities across the country.
- Lifting restrictions on prayers for ulema in all mosques across the country, including Baitul Mokarram National Mosque;
- Stopping Islamophobic content in media;
- Stopping anti-Islam activities by NGOs in the Chittagong Hill Tracts; Hefazat fears a "foreign conspiracy" to make a separate Christian state in that area;
- Stop the extrajudicial killing of ulema;
- Stopping the harassment of teachers and students of Qawmi madrassas and ulema;
- Release of all ulema, and madrassa students, that had been arrested and the withdrawal of all cases filed against them, compensation for the victims, and bringing the assailants to justice.
The government responded by saying that it had "already met" many of the group's demands. This included the arrest of four bloggers for making derogatory comments against the Muhammad.
Human Rights Watch warning
On 3 May 2013, Human Rights Watch issued warnings, based on information obtained from diplomatic missions regarding an imminent government crackdown, to security forces against committing excesses in the planned upcoming protests. It also urged the government to appoint an independent commission to investigate the killing of civilians since February, and prosecute those responsible for unlawful killings and use of force.
Hefazat-e-Islam organized a protest on 5 May demanding a trial of "atheist bloggers", and new legislation for the punishment for blasphemy. On 5 May 2013, Hefazat activists blockaded all six entrance routes to Dhaka from dawn. At noon, with the permission of Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP), activists entered Dhaka and started moving towards Baitul Mukarram Mosque to attend a prayer service. However, activists of Hefazat-e- Islam were attacked en route by armed Awami League activists, who were using the Gulistan Road to reach Shapla Square. In self defense, Hefazat activists counterattacked with bricks. During the clashes, two television journalists were injured, apparently by Hefazat protesters. At about 3:00 pm, while Hefazat leaders were delivering speeches, the Secretary General of the Awami League, Sayed Ashraful Islam, demanded, via press conference, that they leave Dhaka. The opposition party Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) countered by asserting that Hefazat members had a democratic right to assemble and articulate their cause. During the unrest, Hefazat protesters allegedly attacked the offices of the Communist Party of Bangladesh's at Motijheel. Hefazat claimed that their workers were unarmed and had come under attack by police and Bangladesh Chhatra League activists at Gulistan, Purana Paltan and Baitul Mukarram, and in front of the Communist Party offices. Hefazat supporters reportedly vandalized at least 50 vehicles and several buildings during their rally. They violently attacked others in front of the Awami League headquarter at Paltan, Dhaka, and allegedly set fire to a number of book stores near the Baitul Mukarram mosque. However, reports of this event are disputed, and Hefazat denied burning any books. According to BNP leader MK Anwar, the Qurans were burned by Debashih, leader of the ruling party Awami League's wing, the Swechchhasebak League.
By nightfall, many of the demonstrators had left the city, but about 50,000- 70,000 still remained in Shapla Square. There, they held prayers and were addressed by their leaders. At around 2.15 am on 6 May, security forces cut power to the area. At 2:30 a.m. about 5000 members of the security forces launched "Operation Shapla", or "Operation Flash Out", to remove them. The forces included members of the Bangladesh Police, RAB, and BGB. At first they first used megaphones, asking the protesters to leave the area peacefully. Then, moving in from three directions via Dainik Bangla, Fakirapool and Bangladesh Bank intersection, security forces used tear gas, rubber bullets, and sound grenades to disperse the demonstrators. Most fled the area, but others hid in side streets and buildings, where they were shot down by security forces. Hefazat alleges that the bodies were then picked up by garbage trucks and dumped outside the city. Ahmad Shafi was escorted away from a madrassa in Dhaka and flown to Chittagong. Police insisted he was not arrested but was leaving voluntarily.
On the following morning, the protests spread across the country. In Narayanganj, students and teachers of a local madrasa held protests and blockaded the Dhaka-Chittagong highway. In return, police fired on the protesters, killing 27. In Hathazari Upazila, six people were shot dead by police, while in Bagerhat, a Hefazat member died in a clash between protesters and police.
According to government estimates, the number of casualties in this operation was 11, including a few law enforcement members, while the Daily Star reported 5 deaths. Opposition parties initially claimed that 2000- 3000 of protesters had been killed, while Hefazat claimed about 1000 deaths. Human Rights Watch disagreed with Hefazat's claims, but agrees that a massacre took place.
“(the security forces) shot live ammunition and rubber bullets into unarmed crowds, conducted sweeping arrests, and used other forms of excessive force during and after protests that began in February and continue... opened fire on crowds, often without warning..."
Some victims were bystanders, including a number of shopkeepers near the Baitul Mukarram, while most were Hefazat supporters, including children, who were killed by a blow to the head or gunshot wounds. Doctors at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital confirmed that many of those dead had been shot in the head. One policeman was also attacked in reprisal. According to Human Rights Watch, eyewitnesses saw 25-30 bodies that were confirmed dead. This included British activist and journalist David Bergman, who saw 24 bodies. The Guardian reported 22 confirmed deaths, while an investigation conducted by Aljazeera revealed that 14 bodies of "bearded men" with gunshot wounds were buried, after the protests, at Dhaka's state-run cemetery. Human rights group Odhikar reported 61 deaths, but refused to reveal the names of the victims out of security concerns for their families. The UK Home Office estimates a total of no fewer than total of 50 deaths. Many individuals, including orphan children, were missing, which may have contributed to the discrepancies in casualties.
Because of the differing views, Human Rights Watch called for an independent body to investigate the protest deaths. Amnesty International demanded that Bangladesh government set up an independent and impartial investigation immediately to look into police excesses.
Diganta TV and Islamic TV channel were broadcasting live footage of the raid on Motijheel when they were forced off-air on the dawn of 6 May. Diganta Television's chief reporter M. Kamruzzaman said that around 25 plain-clothed policemen and an official from the broadcast commission had entered their studios without warning. According to the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC), the channels' reporting on raid on Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh contained "exaggerated things, (had) given misinformation and called for breaking the law and attacking the law enforcers." Critics have accused the Sheikh Hasina government of using the Islamist issue to silence dissidents.
In response to the massacre allegations, police claimed the operation resulted in “zero casualty” while 14 party leaders claimed it to be "bloodless." Bangladeshi foreign minister Dipu Moni downplayed reports of inaccuracy in government figures and added that "most of the people in the country doesn't even think that there was any controversy with the matter." On 19 June, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina rejected the allegations, stating in Parliament
... and that day's event was fully televised, you have seen how they have rubbed red dye onto their bodies and when police came and called them they got up and ran away ... we saw that dead bodies made a run for it! This kind of drama has been made there.
She also blamed the attack on her arch rival Khaleda Zia, claiming: “She (Khaleda) is the instigator, she is the issuer of order.” Awami League politicians blamed Qamrul Islam BNP, Jamaat and ISI of backing the protests. Hefazat was also criticized for bringing minors, who were also attacked by law enforcement agencies during the operation, to the protests. The government, and the media, were accused of dehumanising the protesters.
The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party compared the attacks to the Pakistani crackdown on 25 March and Jalianwala Bagh massacres. BNP leader MK Anwar called it a "disastrous killing." In response, Detective Branch police raided the houses of city BNP convener Sadeque Hossain Khoka and Bangladesh Jatiya Party chairman Andaleeve Rahman Partha.
On 10 June 2013, human rights group Odhikar, published a fact finding report claiming 61 deaths, but refused to provide any names of the victims report, citing security concerns for the families of the victims. The Ain O Shalish Kendro demanded impartial investigation "to deal with them (Hefazat-e-Islam) more strategically and responsibly."
UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon voiced concern over the killing of unarmed protesters in Bangladesh and requested the government to sit with religious and political leaders. US ambassador, Dan Mozena, has cautioned that all groups and individuals have rights to protest.
On 27 June, Martin F. McMahon & Associates, a US law firm representing two US-based organisations, Human Rights and Development for Bangladesh and Bangladeshi-Americans in Greater Washington DC filed cases in the International Criminal Court against 25 Bangladeshi ministers and security officials, including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for alleged "torture, forced disappearance, extrajudicial executions and mass killings", Ahmed Ziauddin, a Brussels based Bangladeshi lawyer who was accused of influencing the proceedings of Bangladesh's International Crimes Tribunal at the instruction of Bangladesh government, stated- "I am not sure about the objective of it and I am sure those Washington-based organisations have some political motives. They may have been trying to create political hype since filing a complaint in the ICC does not mean proceedings of a case will start immediately"
On 10 August, Police raided the office of Odhikar and arrested its general secretary Adilur Rahman Khan. In a press briefing Police said they found the list of 61 deaths and released it to the media. In a press statement, the US Department of State expressed deep concern over the arrest and demanded his immediate release.
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- Odhikar's full report
- Dhaka Metropolitan commissioner's interview published in The Prothom Alo newspaper
- Independent TV's investigative report on Operation Shapla chattar
- Independent TV's investigative report on Operation Shapla chattar (English sub titled)