Bangladesh: Cases Filed against Thousands Over Workers’ Violent Protest at Chinese-backed Plant

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Security has been beefed up for Chinese workers at a power plant in southeastern Bangladesh, and police have filed cases against thousands of local workers who went on a rampage Saturday, leading officers to shoot dead five of them, authorities said Monday.

More than 3,500 Bangladeshi workers upset over unpaid wages and work hours during Ramadan allegedly burned vehicles and attacked police at the sprawling, facility still under construction in the Banshkhali sub-district of Chittagong, about 292 km (181 miles) southeast of Dhaka. The site is shuttered and many local workers have gone into hiding, some of them told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

The mob was on the verge of attacking about 900 Chinese nationals on the premises of the Banshkhali Power Plant when police fired on them to prevent “very, very serious incidents,” a senior police official in the Chittagong region told BenarNews on Saturday.

“The Chinese are staying there. Additional measures have been taken to strengthen their security,” Shafiul Kabir, officer-in-charge of the Banshkhali police station, told BenarNews on Monday.

Police Sub-Inspector Md. Rashed filed a case against 2,500 unidentified Bangladeshis on Saturday night on charges of attacking police, according to Kabir.

“Shortly afterward, Faruk Ahmed, the chief coordinator of the under-construction plant, filed another case against 22 identified persons and more than 1,000 unidentified persons for arson and looting,” Kabir said, adding that the Chinese workers were not included in the charges.

He said no one had been arrested as of Monday over Saturday’s incident.

Ahmed confirmed that he had filed the case.

“The case has been filed according to the facts, that’s all I can say,” he told BenarNews.

On Saturday, Md. Zakir Hossain Khan, a senior police official in the Chittagong region, said that workplace relations between 900 Chinese nationals and about 4,000 locals employed at the plant were strained over outstanding wages and demands for reduced hours during Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, which began last week.

Into hiding

Since then, some of the Bangladeshi workers have gone into hiding, according to authorities. Kabir said he did not believe the workers had left the area over fears of arrest.

He noted that about 1,200 workers had returned to the project location, but the places where they were staying had been looted.

“That is why the construction work of the plant is closed,” Kabir said.

Ali Haider Asif, a member of the union council and a safety officer for a Chinese contractor, denied allegations that he was among those accused.

“I was not present there during the incident,” he told BenarNews, adding, “Many locals like me who work or do not work there have been implicated.”

Asif said many of workers leave the area at night over fear of arrest.

A Bangladeshi worker named Mashiur Rahman said he was among them.

“Like me, many more have gone into hiding,” Mashiur told BenarNews.

The case statement filed by Faruk Ahmed includes allegations of unauthorized entry inside the power plant of people armed with deadly weapons, arson in plant installations and vehicles, vandalism, damage and theft of goods, according to a copy obtained by BenarNews. Losses are estimated at 150 million taka (U.S. $1.76 million).

Two committees whose members are with the civil administration and police have started investigating the incident. The S. Alam Group, the Bangladeshi partner which has a 70 percent stake in the power plant, also sent an investigation team from Dhaka.

Seventy percent of the $2.49 billion cost of the facility was financed by China, according to information from S. Alam Group. Two Chinese firms, SEPCOIII Electric Power Construction Corp. and HTG Development Group, have a 30 percent stake in the project, according to Bangladesh government data.

The plant had been scheduled to begin producing 1,320 megawatts of power in 2023.

In Dhaka, the Chinese embassy and Bangladesh’s Ministry of Power and Energy did not immediately respond on Monday to BenarNews requests for comment.

Compensation sought

Human rights organization Ain-O-Salish Kendra, meanwhile, announced that it served legal notice on the government seeking 30 million taka ($353,000) compensation for each of the families of the five people gunned down by police on Saturday.

Ahmed Reza, one of the dead workers, was a resident of East Baraghona. His uncle, Md. Farhad Ullah, said Reza took the job a few days ago.

“We are helpless poor people. We can’t afford to sue,” he told BenarNews during a phone conversation “That is why we will seek justice from Allah.”

Saturday’s incident was not the first massive protest over the facility. Locals including fishermen and workers on salt and fish farms protested when the 3,000-acre project was approved in 2016.

Bangladesh is building several coal-fired power plants financed by China even as critics note the nation’s power capacity exceeds current demand and coal is more expensive than other energy sources because the country has to import it.

In September 2020, the government signed a deal to build a second 1,320 MW, coal-fired power plant at Payra in coastal Patuakhali district, near the Sundarbans, one of the world’s largest mangrove forests. Work on the first Payra plant halted briefly in June 2019, after a Bangladeshi worker fell to his death from a terrace and a Chinese worker was killed in a subsequent brawl.

Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

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