Student Killing Sparks Protests in Bangladesh

On Monday, 21-year-old Abrar Fahad, a student at the Bangladesh University of Engineering Technology (BUET), was tortured and killed over his Facebook post critiquing Bangladesh’s recent water-sharing agreement with India. Several members of the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) – a student political organization loyal to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the ruling Awami League party – have been detained in connection with the murder. The arrests were made after CCTV footage from Fahad’s dormitory showed several men carrying the victim’s body. News of the killing sparked outrage, and thousands of students staged protests in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka and other major cities, demanding justice.

“The university administration has to take strict measures to stop such incidents,” Barkat Ullah, Fahad’s father, told The Guardian. “They should know what’s happening inside their dormitory. They have to hold them accountable.” The UN released a statement regarding the incident, saying that it “deplores the killing of a young student, allegedly for freely expressing his views. Campus violence in Bangladesh has over the years affected and claimed too many lives, with apparent impunity for those bearing responsibility,” adding, “freedom of speech is a human right, nobody should be harassed, tortured or killed for exercising it”.

The Chhatra League activists interrogated Fahad over his alleged involvement with Islami Chhatra Shibir – the student ring of the Islamist political organization of Bangladesh – which has political ties with the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). They claimed to have found “evidence” of Fahad’s ties after looking through his Facebook account. Asif Nazrul, a professor of law at Dhaka University, told Al Jazeera, “who gave the right to Chhatra League to interrogate another fellow student for his involvement with Shibir or posting anti-government Facebook statuses? Chhatra League has gone out of control of the government. Their questionable activities have to be stopped.”

The Awami League government has long refused to hold Chhatra League members accountable for acts of violence and intimidation. There have been numerous complaints of extortion, threatening false allegations, and violent attacks. Fahad’s death has shed new light on this culture of violence within Bangladeshi universities. According to the BBC, new students are often forced to attend meetings and rallies to be able to stay in the dormitories, and attacks and bullying for having different views or defying BCL leaders are common.

In 2018, students taking part in road safety protests were being beaten by attackers wearing BCL hats. Journalists were also being targeted; reporting being beaten while covering the protests. A female reporter said she was threatened and physically assaulted by a mob of BCL members, even after agreeing to delete footage she had recorded of them. Instead of arresting the perpetrators, Bangladeshi authorities targeted students, activists, and journalists who criticized these attacks or spoke out about the government’s handling of the protests. In Bangladesh, political parties have long used their student wings to further ideologies and suppress dissent.

Fahad’s death represents a deeper issue within the Bangladeshi government, which has often ignored or denied torture, disappearances, extrajudicial killings by security forces, and arbitrary arrests despite substantial evidence and credible accounts from witnesses. The government has also been known to curb free speech and crackdown on dissent. Internet providers in Bangladesh have blocked a web-page launched by BUET professors concerning Fahad’s killing, following the orders of the government’s Telecommunication Regulatory Commission. Activist Tasneem Khalil said the blocked web-page “confirmed in graphic detail how such torture has been a routine element in the daily lives of hundreds of BUET students,” and that it posed “a serious challenge to the government narrative that the killing of Abrar Fahad was just a stray incident.”

Fahad’s father has brought a case against 19 people, and police have so far arrested 13, mostly members of the Chhatra League. Protesters continue to flood the streets with the hope that the perpetrators will be held accountable for their crimes, authorities will perform a thorough and impartial investigation, and the government will finally acknowledge the widespread political violence occurring within Bangladesh’s public universities.