The long march by anti-rape protesters from Dhaka to Noakhali came under repeated attacks in Feni yesterday after men of the ruling Awami League and police allegedly carried out "joint attacks" on them, leaving at least 35 protesters injured.
The incidents happened at the Shanti Company intersection in Feni town around 11:30am after the demonstrators concluded a rally in the Feni Shaheed Minar area.
"Goons of the local Awami League launched attacks on us with sticks and rods. At first, police were mere spectators. Then they too joined the ruling-party men and chased us… When we got on the bus, they attacked us again, hurling brick chunks, charging with sticks and ransacking the buses," Mehedi Hasan Nobel, president of Bangladesh Chhatra Union, told reporters in Chowmuhani of Noakhali.
"In the two-hour journey from Feni to Noakhali, we saw Chhatra League and Jubo League men take up positions on the sides of the road. Fearing for their security, police did not arrange any treatment for us and so the injured had to remain in the bus," Mehedi said, adding that they finally received primary treatment at Life Care Hospital in Chowmuhani.
At least 35 activists got primary treatment from the hospital, said Rakib Uddin, a physician at the hospital. Eight to 10 of them suffered severe blows and were later treated at Noakhali General Hospital.
Photos and videos of the attack went viral on social media as heavy criticism poured in from netizens. In the videos, it was seen that police were mere spectators when attackers swooped and made no attempt to detain them.
The protesters alleged that plainclothes men in DB jackets also took part in the attack.
The attack came on the day when Bangladesh Police organised anti-rape and anti-violence rallies in 6,912 beats across the country to create public awareness against rape and violence against women.
Denying the allegations, Additional Superintendent of Feni Police Mainul Islam told The Daily Star that it was "not an attack", but a scuffle broke out there after the rally.
"Marchers wrote 'Dhorshokder Paharadar' [protecters of rapists], 'Tui Dhorshok' [you are a rapist], on posters of local lawmaker Nizam Uddin Hazari. In protest, his followers brought out a procession. Activists from the long march chased followers of the lawmaker and a scuffle ensued," he claimed.
The official said police tried to restrain the ruling party men and did not attack the marchers.
The Daily Star called AL lawmaker Nizam Hazari for comments, but he did not answer the phone.
Feni Sadar upazila AL General Secretary Sushen Chandra Shil denied AL's involvement.
"The general public were angered and reacted after seeing derogatory comments on the placards of Nizam Hazari, which also included a photo of the prime minister. No one from Awami League and its affiliates were involved," he told reporters.
Hriddho Anindya, cultural affairs secretary of Chhatra Union's Jahangirnagar University unit, who was at the march, alleged that police first attacked them when some protesters were painting a wall in the Feni Shaheed Minar area.
"Later, when we tried to move towards the bus, some miscreants entered the procession and attacked us. They ransacked our six buses," he said.
Demonstrators said they cancelled their rally in Dagonbhuiyan upazila after learning that the ruling party men also attacked local leftist protesters there.
The long marchers finally held a concluding rally at Maizdi Shaheed Minar of Noakhali around 4:00pm. They demanded immediate resignation of the home minister.
Later, they announced protest rallies across the country on October 19. If their nine-point demand is not met, they warned of a highway blockade across the country on October 21. Tougher protests will come if the home minister did not resign, they said.
In a press statement, Bangladesh Chhatra Union said such attacks in Feni clarified the position of the government and the police, in favour of the rapists.
Protesting the attacks in Feni, several left-leaning parties brought out processions and protest rallies in several parts of the country, including Dhaka. They demanded arrest of the Feni attackers and resignation of the "failed" home minister.
Protests against rape and violence against women erupted across the country since the beginning of October, following the recent incidents of gang rape in Sylhet's MC College and in Noakhali's Begumganj upazila.
Around 450 protesters, including left-leaning parties, socio-cultural ogranisations, students, youths and rights activists, started the long march under the banner "Bangladesh against Rape and Impunity" to press home their nine-point demand, from the capital's Shahbagh area around 10:30am on Friday.
Their nine-point demand includes reformation of the Evidence Act, implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) charter, exemplary punishment for those involved in gender-based violence, and an end to repression of women in the hills and on plain land.
Meanwhile, various political, labour and social parties and organisations organised human chains, demonstrations and protest processions in front of the National Press Club in the capital against rape and torture of women and children in the country.
Speakers at these programmes said the incidence of rape and oppression of women and children is increasing due to the culture of impunity in the country. For the same reason, incidents like murder, kidnapping, and extrajudicial killings are also increasing, they said.