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At Least 27 Dead in Bangladesh Anti-Blasphemy Law Violence

At least 27 people are dead in Bangladesh’s capital city after clashes between police and thousands of protesters demanding the government enact an anti-blasphemy law that would punish those who defame Islam with death.

The Associated Press reports that police have banned all demonstrations in the capital Dhaka after Sunday’s rioting, in which Islamic hardliners fought with authorities for more than five hours. Protesters burned dozens of vehicles, blocked roads with burning tires and logs and attacked a police station during the violence. A police official told the AP that two police officers and a paramilitary soldier were among the dead.

At least seven people were killed in the southeastern city of Chittagong, where Islamic activists reportedly attacked police with iron rods and meat cleavers.

Al Jazeera reports that the man who instigated the deadly rioting, 93-year-old Allama Shah Ahmad Shafi, was driven out of Dhaka by police and flown to Chittagong. Shafi is the supreme leader of Hifazat-e-Islam, an Islamic fundamentalist group that believes Bangladesh should eschew secularism and embrace Islamic governance.

Hifazat-e-Islam strongly supports the adoption of a strict anti-blasphemy law that would punish those who defame Islam with death. Desire for the draconian law was sparked by “atheist bloggers” who allegedly insulted Islam. More than 100,000 supporters of the anti-blasphemy law gathered at an April 6 rally at which one person was killed.

The group also released a list of 13 demands, including a ban on men and women mixing together and the restoration of pledges to Allah in the nation’s constitution.

Critics accuse Hifazat-e-Islam of wanting to turn Bangladesh, where 90 percent of the population of 160 million are Muslims, into a nation like Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

“A ban on the public mixing of sexes and other such demands would put women back behind the veil,” journalist Kazi Shahrin Huq told Al Jazeera. Many of Huq’s female colleagues were attacked by Hifazat-e-Islam supporters during the April 6 rally in the capital.

“Hifazat-e-Islam campaigning against democratic forces in the name of religion is acceptable in no way,” Arefin Siddique, vice chancellor of Dhaka University, told Al Jazeera. “They’re trying to impose their opinions on others.”

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