x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Islamists clash with riot police after Bangladesh backs secularism

The removal of a clause from the country's constitution that expressed 'absolute faith and trust in Allah' saw a 30-hour nationwide strike called by a coalition of 12 Islamic parties.

DHAKA // At least 70 people were injured, authorities said, as riot police in Bangladesh fired tear gas in clashes yesterday with thousands of stone-throwing Islamist activists demonstrating against constitutional changes that proclaimed the country a secular state.

The violence erupted in three towns near Dhaka after police tried to stop the protesters from blocking roads and smashing vehicles, police official Nazrul Alam said. At least 10 policemen were injured.

Mr Alam said the protesters smashed more than a dozen vehicles for refusing to join the strike.

The private television stations ATN News and Boishakhi TV showed protesters, many of them wearing Islamic prayer caps, throwing stones at police. Police responded with batons and tear gas.

Police arrested at least 75 people on charges of disrupting the peace, the Daily Star newspaper said.

The 30-hour nationwide strike was called by a coalition of 12 Islamic parties to protest against the removal of a clause from the preamble of the country's constitution that expressed "absolute faith and trust in Allah".

The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party also backed the protest.

The Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's coalition government recently passed a package of constitutional amendments in which it attempted to appease both Islamists and liberals in the country. The changes retained Islam as the state religion, but added secularism as a state principle.

The Islamist parties hold no seats in parliament, but draw support from hundreds of Islamic schools.

During yesterday's strike, several thousand protesters, many of them armed with sticks and stones, tried to block a road in Kanchpur, 16 kilometres outside Dhaka. Similar clashes occurred in Keraniganj and Fatullah, two other small towns on the southern outskirts of the capital, police said.

Bangladesh has been hit by a series of general strikes since Parliament passed the amendments, which also removed a 15-year-old requirement that national elections be overseen by a non-partisan caretaker government.

Last week, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party enforced a 48-hour shutdown to protest against that change, which it says will allow Sheikh Hasina's government to rig the next elections, due in 2014. Sheikh Hasina denies the allegation.

A general strike is a common opposition tactic to embarrass the government in Bangladesh. The strikes usually turn violent.