DHAKA (Reuters) - Bangladesh’s cabinet on Monday approved raising the maximum jail time for rash driving deaths to five years from three, the law minister said, as students protested for a ninth day over the deaths of two teenagers killed by a speeding bus in Dhaka.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who faces an election due by the end of the year, has accused her political rivals of trying to stir up anti-government sentiment using the deaths as a pretext. The opposition has denied involvement.
The crowded capital of 18 million has been paralyzed by angry students demanding changes to transport laws following the July 29 deaths after the driver of a privately operated bus lost control and ran over a group of college students in an alleged race for passengers with another bus.
“As per the proposed law, an accused has to face five years of jail for negligent driving (leading to death),” Law Minister Anisul Huq told reporters after a cabinet meeting chaired by Hasina.
The deliberate running over of people will draw murder charges and carry the death sentence, he added. Parliament’s approval for the proposal to become law is seen as a formality, since Hasina’s ruling Awami League has an overwhelming majority.
Defying government warnings to end the protests, some university students on Monday threw bricks at police and others tried to take processions through the city.
Police fired tear gas and used water cannon to disperse protesters, as students have stopped vehicles, demanding to check drivers’ licenses and their vehicles’ roadworthiness.
Police said they were still investigating Sunday’s attack on a car carrying the U.S. ambassador by a group of armed men, some riding motorcycles. There were no injuries but two vehicles were damaged.
The U.S. embassy said it was not in a position to comment until the investigation was complete. Ambassador to Bangladesh Marcia Bernicat was returning from dinner at the time of the attack.
Earlier the embassy had criticized the police crackdown on the protesters, whom it described as having “united and captured the imagination of the whole country”.
Last week police beat some students in their efforts to disperse them.
Police have arrested social activist and photographer Shahidul Alam who had posted comments that a student wing of Hasina’s ruling party was trying to attack the protesters.
Alam’s organization, Drik Picture Library, said 30 to 35 men in plainclothes swept into his Dhaka apartment building, saying they were police detectives, and took him into custody.
Alam was screaming as he was forced into a car, it quoted security guards at the building as saying.
Dhaka’s additional deputy commissioner of police, Obaidur Rahman, said Alam was arrested on charges of spreading rumors on social media, aiming to incite violence.
Rights group Amnesty International called for Alam’s immediate and unconditional release, saying he was held after an interview to Al-Jazeera English on the Dhaka protests.
“There is no justification whatsoever for detaining anyone for solely peacefully expressing their views,” Omar Waraich, Amnesty’s deputy South Asia director, said in a statement.
“The Bangladeshi government must end the crackdown on the student protesters and people speaking out against it.”
Traffic laws are poorly enforced and the students blame the private bus network for mishaps in a city choked by massive traffic jams.
Road accidents kill 12,000 people and cause 35,000 injuries in Bangladesh each year, says the Accident Research Institute of state-run Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology.
Sheikh Shafi, a polytechnic student injured in a protest on Saturday, said one problem was that bus drivers must work long hours as they do not receive monthly salaries but are paid commissions based on passenger numbers instead.
“Our demand is that the owners must appoint them and they will work a maximum of 10 hours. The commission-based system must be eliminated,” said Shafi, whose brother died in a road accident in 2015.
Reporting by Serajul Quadir and Ruma Paul; Writing by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Clarence Fernandez