There are fears that Bangladesh’s anti-drug campaign, which has left more than 70 suspected drug dealers dead in just two weeks, will become even more severe in coming days as part of a bid to silence opposition voices ahead of parliamentary elections.
Bangladeshi security forces have shot dead more than 70 suspected drug dealers in two weeks in an anti-narcotic crackdown that has created fears of opposition voices being silenced ahead of the upcoming national election.
Rights activists fear the campaign may turn into mass extra-judicial killings like those in the Philippines where more than 12,000 people have reportedly been gunned down since the war on drugs began in 2016.
“Such killings are against the spirit of the rule of law. The accused must get the protection of the law,” Adilur Rahman Khan, the head of human rights organization Odhiker, told dpa on Saturday.
Police statistics show at least 73 people have been gunned down since security forces launched the nationwide campaign on May 12.
Eleven of them were killed on Friday night in the districts of Comilla, Feni, Chandpur, Joypurhat, Mymensingh, Dinajpur, Barguna, Thakurgaon and Pabna.
Officer Abu Mohammad Shahjahan Kabir in Comilla said police fired 16 shots after his team was attacked by a gang during a raid at a drug den on Friday night.
“Two drug dealers were found dead after a gunfight,” Kabir said, adding that one of the suspects was accused in 16 cases related to smuggling narcotics.
Police seized 40 kilograms of cannabis and a pistol from the scene, he added.
Similar statements have come from other officers after such operations, most of which are carried out in the dead of night. The police claim that they fire bullets only in self-defence after being attacked.
However rights activists insist otherwise.
Many of the victims are mistakenly identified as drug peddlers by police and some have been targeted for their political affiliation, Khan said.
“We are not sure how many of them are innocent, but we have been investigating to determine the number of mistakenly identified persons,” he said.
Odhiker has been investigating extra-judicial killings, forced disappearances and other human rights violations in Bangladesh since 1994.
Security forces began the anti-drug campaign amid a surging trade in methamphetamines, also called yaba tablets, which are mostly smuggled into Bangladesh from neighbouring Myanmar.
A senior cabinet minister has blamed Myanmar for sending the tablets to Bangladesh after security forces recovered 40 million pieces of the cheap methamphetamines last year.
In addition, at least 4 million tablets were seized in the first four months of 2018.
“Myanmar has not only sent millions of Rohingya, but also pushed the yaba tablets like a tsunami into Bangladesh,” said Road Transport Minister Obaidul Quader, adding that his government would not spare those involved in narcotics.
Jamal Uddin Ahmed, chief of Bangladesh’s Department of Narcotics Control, said an estimated 7 million people are addicted to different types of synthetic drugs, including heroin, yaba, codeine-containing syrup Phensedyl, pethidine and morphine.
“We have recently intensified the anti-drug drives combining forces from different agencies so that the criminals cannot escape,” Ahmed told dpa, while not giving a timeframe for the campaign.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina asked the country’s law enforcement agencies to eradicate drug abuse by mirroring her government’s campaign to eliminate rising militancy.
Hasina’s anti-militancy drive which began in 2016 saw the killing of more than one hundred suspected radical Islamists, who were blamed for carrying out attacks on foreigners, secularist bloggers, writers, priests and those of other faiths.
Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu has justified the deaths of the latest campaign, saying those killed during the exchange of bullets cannot be termed as extra-judicial killings.
“They [suspects] are killed in a drug war,” said the minister, adding that Hasina’s government has never allowed extra-judicial killings in Bangladesh.
The deaths carried out by law enforcement agencies have drawn criticism from Bangladesh’s opposition political parties who say it will create a climate of fear ahead of the national election, likely to be held in October this year.
The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of jailed former prime minister Khaleda Zia has claimed that one of its local leaders was killed by law enforcement in northern Netrakona district in the name of the drug war.
“The government has been trying to silence the opposition voices by killing people in the name of this anti-narcotic drive,” said Moudud Ahmed, a senior leader of the BNP, calling for an end to extra-judicial killing.
“The activities of the law enforcement agencies must be held accountable,” the former lawmaker added.