Bangladeshi rights activists and opposition politicians are criticizing as heavy handed this month’s intensified nationwide anti-drug crackdown in which, police agencies say, officers gunned down at least 46 suspects over the past nine days who were allegedly resisting arrest.
Some 3,000 drug suspects have been arrested since law enforcement agencies sharply stepped up their anti-narcotics operations on May 14, in a campaign aimed largely at stemming the flow of yaba tablets, a methamphetamine manufactured and smuggled in from neighboring Myanmar, authorities said.
On Wednesday, police and the elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) force killed nine suspected drug during gunfights in seven districts, officials said. Two days earlier, law enforcers killed 11 people in similar incidents.
“The law enforcers call it ‘gunfights’ but these are actually extrajudicial killings. We always talk of following due legal process to punish criminals,” Nur Khan Liton, the former executive director of Ain-O-Shalish, a Bangladeshi human rights organization, told BenarNews.
The crackdown would go on as long as the country was not free from illegal drugs, said Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced a zero-tolerance policy against illegal drug dealers, and called on police agencies to step up their efforts against the narcotics trade.
The prime minister equated the threat of illegal drugs with the menace of militancy, which, she claimed, her government had reined in.
“We’ve contained (Islamist) militancy. Now we’ve taken an initiative to save the country from this drug menace,” Hasina said on Sunday, according to Agence France-Presse.
9 Killings on Wednesday
Meanwhile, Mehedi Hasan, superintendent of police in Kushtia district, defended his officers’ actions in shooting dead two suspects, who were among nine suspects killed in anti-drug operations across the country on Wednesday.
“Both of them were notorious drug dealers,” he told BenarNews.
“These are not extrajudicial killings. They attacked the on-duty police and the police retaliated with counter fire. Police have every right to defend themselves.”
Farhad Ahmed, superintendent of police in Thakurgaon district, said that a suspect who was killed in a gunfight with officers in the area had faced charges in 19 cases, including 12 drug-related ones.
“Whenever we catch him, he goes to jail for, at best, one month. Upon return, he restarts his drug dealing,” Ahmed told Benar.
‘People have questions’
According to Liton, the right activist, law enforcers have been displaying weapons recovered after alleged gunfights with drug suspects.
“Most of the arms and explosive shown as recovered from the gunfight victims are very low-grade and handmade weapons. Why would criminals dare to attack the heavily armed police and RAB with these sub-standard arms and explosives?” he asked. “In these gunfight incidents only people from a particular side die. So, people have questions about these shootouts.”
Others, including an official from the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), criticized the ramped-up anti-drug operations as timed to stir a panic among the public about drugs in the run-up to a general election expected in December.
“We are skeptical about the intention of the government. The law enforcers have been killing people every day, branding them as drug dealers. This type of extrajudicial killings cannot be the language of any civilized country,” Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain, a member of BNP’s highest policy-making standing committee, told BenarNews.
“The purpose of such operation is to create panic among the people. We think the government had a political agenda in the anti-drug operation. The offenders must be punished through due legal procedures,” he added.
However, Obaidul Quader, general secretary of the ruling Awami League, said the Bangladeshi people were pleased with the campaign.
“Drug abuse has been destroying our younger generation. The BNP would never praise the good work of the government,” he told reporters.
Saddam Hossain, a medicine shop salesman in Dhaka, told BenarNews that his family was pleased by the crackdown on dealers.
“This is better as they cannot be touched through legal means,” he said.
7 million addicts
In Bangladesh, 32 of the country’s 64 districts are vulnerable to drug smuggling, according to a 2016 report from the department of narcotics control.
The department reported that drug abuse was most common in the capital Dhaka and other big cities.
Syed Tawfique Uddin Ahmed, the department’s director of operations, said there were at least 7 million drug addicts in Bangladesh and yaba tablets (methamphetamine) shipped in from Myanmar was the nation’s biggest drug challenge.
“Last year, we recovered 60 million of yaba tablets. According to United Nations estimates, the number of any drug is eight to 10 times greater than the number seized,” Ahmed told BenarNews.