Nearly 200 suspected drug dealers killed during Bangladesh’s two-month-old crackdown on narcotics traffickers were gunned down in controversial “crossfire” incidents involving law enforcement officers, a senior police commander told BenarNews.
Police have arrested tens of thousands of suspects in nationwide raids since Bangladesh’s government announced a zero-tolerance policy on the narcotics trade, said the officer heading the anti-drug operations.
“Death in crossfire is unexpected,” Md. Moniruzzaman, the additional deputy police inspector-general in charge of intelligence and special affairs, told BenarNews, noting that the number of fatalities in the ongoing crackdown were tiny compared with the volume of people taken into custody.
“But if you see the statistics in the last two months, police arrested 37,225 [suspects] in 25,575 cases, while the number of deaths in crossfire is 184 till Thursday [July 19],” he said.
Those who were killed since police launched the crackdown on May 15 were drug lords or dealers shot while resisting arrest or firing at officers, police officials said in justifying the killings in so-called crossfire incidents.
But human rights advocates have raised concerns over whether crossfire shootings have been staged. Some called for investigations to determine if national police – particularly the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) special forces wing – had targeted drug suspects in extrajudicial killings.
Moniruzzaman rejected this claim, and top government officials have defended the police by denying that officers have deliberately killed or executed suspects.
“You can’t say that we haven’t given them a chance for a fair trial,” Moniruzzaman said, adding that no innocent people had been arrested or killed so far in Bangladesh’s new war on drugs.
And according to Mufti Mahmud Khan, the director of RAB’s legal and media office, crossfire shootings or violent encounters with drug suspects are “quite common, not only in Bangladesh but elsewhere in the world when you deal with this illicit trade.”
Meanwhile, a senior police official who spoke on condition of anonymity, said crossfire killings had become a reality in Bangladesh’s law enforcement culture. Security agencies were under pressure to take “stringent action” against drug lords in order to control the narcotics trade as quickly as possible, the official suggested.
“It’s sad but true. Whether it is crossfire, encounters or gunfights, it has become part of the justice system, and it cannot be changed overnight,” the source told BenarNews.
“The situation has gone beyond control – over seven million people, mostly youths, are dependent on drugs nowadays. It’s a huge market here, and this market is controlled by those who get blessings from the influential leaders of political parties or even from the law enforcement agencies. We arrested many but couldn’t keep them in prison,” the official said.
‘An all-out war’
Soon after the crackdown started in mid-May, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina gave a speech in which she equated the illegal drug trade with the terrorist threat, and announced that her government would enforce a zero-tolerance policy toward drug traffickers.
“We’ve contained militancy. Now we’ve taken an initiative to save the country from this drug menace,” Hasina said, according to Agence France-Presse.
The crackdown would go on as long as the country was not free from illegal drugs, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal warned.
“The ongoing operation is an all-out war on drugs,” Khan told BenarNews in May.
The anti-drug drive is aimed mainly at curbing the trade in “yaba” pills, a methamphetamine smuggled into Bangladesh from neighboring Myanmar.
There are at least 7 million drug addicts in Bangladesh and the yaba trade is the nation’s biggest narcotics threat, Syed Tawfique Uddin Ahmed, director of the country’s Department of Narcotics Control, told BenarNews.
Calls for police to be investigated
The crackdown, however, has drawn both domestic and international scrutiny, as well as calls for Bangladesh to respect human rights following the death in late May of a high-profile suspect.
Police alleged that Ekramul Haque, a politician in Teknaf, a sub-district of southeastern Cox’s Bazar district near Bangladesh’s border with Myanmar, was killed on May 28 during a shootout between RAB personnel and a drug gang.
But the man’s widow later convened a news conference where she produced recordings of a phone call that, she said, proved that Haque’s killing was staged after authorities had accused him of dealing in drugs.
Abu Ahmed Fowzul Kabir, coordinator of Ain-O-Salish-Kendra, a Bangladeshi human rights advocacy group, said drug suspects who were killed in crossfire shootings had been robbed of their right to due process.
According to statistics compiled by his group, at least 202 suspects had died during the crackdown to date from of a variety of causes, but 179 of those people were killed in crossfire incidents.
“We want a thorough investigation,” Fowzul Kabir told BenarNews.
In early June, New York-based Human Rights Watch urged Bangladesh’s government to order an independent inquiry into allegations of extrajudicial killings.
“Everyone deserves a fair trial and to be safe from summary execution by state security forces,” Brad Adams, the watchdog’s Asia program director, said in a statement then.
“The government of Bangladesh has long claimed that it has a zero-tolerance policy against abuses, yet we continue to see an ongoing pattern of wrongful killings, whether it is against alleged drug dealers, political opponents, or others,” Adams said.
The United Nations, European Union and the United States also expressed grave concern about Bangladesh’s tough enforcement of its zero-tolerance policy on narcotics traders.
“We urge Bangladesh to conduct thorough and transparent investigations into all credible reports of extrajudicial killings,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said last month.
“[B]angladesh should ensure its law enforcement respect human rights and that their conduct is consistent with international standards and Bangladesh’s own constitution, which includes a presumption of innocence and the right to due process,” she said.
In response to the U.S. statement, Home Minister Khan claimed “no extrajudicial killings” had occurred during the counter-narcotics drive.
Bangladesh’s law enforcement agencies were trained to respect human rights, and Bangladeshi authorities would conduct investigations into all incidents, the minister said.
He added a caveat.
“The law enforcing agencies reserve the right to fire to protect themselves when they come under attack of the criminals,” Khan said.