More than 90 die in two weeks in Bangladesh drug war, sparking fears of Philippines-style extrajudicial killings

Families of several people killed have said they were arrested by police and died in custody

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 May, 2018, 4:27am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 May, 2018, 10:18pm

A crackdown on alleged drug dealers has left at least 91 people dead in less than two weeks in Bangladesh, sparking fears of a Philippines-style drug war marked by extrajudicial killings.

Most of the deaths have occurred in what the Bangladeshi news media have referred to as shoot-outs or gunfights, although the families of several people killed have said they were arrested by police and died in custody.

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Since the operation began May 15, the death toll has risen every day, the names and whereabouts of those killed filling newspaper columns but with few details of the evidence against them. Odhikar, a human rights advocacy group, said Sunday that it had counted 91 people killed in 13 days.

Many of the dead appear from news accounts to have been small-time addicts and peddlers killed in cities and far corners of the country, sometimes accused of carrying small stashes of drugs and light weapons.

One was 35-year-old Kamrul Islam, described by his wife as a former drug seller who left the trade 10 years ago and was earning a meagre living running a food stall at a bus station in Dhaka.

His wife, Taslima Begum, who lives with her parents while Islam worked in the capital, said in an interview that his phone had been switched off since Wednesday. When relatives went to look for him at the food stall, they were told he’d been picked up by plain clothes officers.

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On Friday, Begum learned from television news that Islam had been killed in what was described as a shoot-out with members of the Rapid Action Battalion, or RAB, the elite counterterrorism squad leading the operation.

“After we got married, my husband left his previous lifestyle. I know that he is completely innocent now,” she said.

The drug war is the latest severe move by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s increasingly authoritarian government, which has been criticised for stifling journalists, jailing political opponents and allowing law enforcement agencies to detain, torture and kill suspected Islamist militants.

By denying drug suspects due process, it has drawn comparisons to President Rodrigo Duterte’s notorious drug war in the Philippines, a shoot-to-kill campaign that has killed more than 12,000 people in two years. Bangladeshi authorities have denied carrying out extrajudicial killings.

In launching the crackdown this month, Hasina invoked her anti-terrorism policies –– the toughest of which were implemented after a 2016 attack on a Dhaka cafe that killed 23 people –– and said that no offender would be spared.

“We will rescue the country from the clutches of drugs just as we did in clamping down on militancy,” she said.

Bangladeshi police estimate that 7 million of the country’s 160 million people are addicted to drugs, most commonly yaba, a pill that contains caffeine and methamphetamine. Although the drug is not produced in Bangladesh, authorities say that more than US$40 million worth of yaba pills enter the country every year from neighbouring Myanmar.

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Bangladesh has adopted a tougher stance against yaba since last summer, when hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees began streaming into the country to escape attacks by Myanmar security forces. Officials have arrested hundreds of refugees, or traffickers posing as refugees, on drug-related offences.

Domestic and international human rights groups say the government is sweeping up minor offenders while ignoring the leaders of smuggling networks, including government and security officials believed to be involved in the trade.

“Instead of taking effective measures to clean up law enforcement and patronage networks and go after the kingpins, they have suddenly started this war against the little ones,” said Badiul Alam Majumdar, a human-rights activist and co-founder of Shujan, a civil society organisation.

“Anybody could be picked up tomorrow and branded a drug pusher. No one is safe if there is no rule of law.”