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Bangladesh's ‘zero tolerance’ crackdown on drugs is leaving dozens dead

Ya ba – opiate pills that are being smuggled into Bangladesh from neighboring Myanmar. Image by journalist พีรพล อนุตรโสตถิ์ via Wikimedia Commons. CC: BY 4.0

Bangladesh has a drug problem in the form of ya ba, or pink tablets containing a mixture of methamphetamine and caffeine that are usually being smuggled from neighboring Myanmar. But is a deadly drug war the answer to curb an increase in availability and use, especially among youth?

Human rights concerns are high after more than 50 alleged dealers have been killed in Bangladesh over the last several days as a result of a “zero tolerance” campaign undertaken by police with the support of the prime minister. A number of raids have happened across the country.

Some citizens have welcomed the crackdown. Md. Julkar Nain tweeted, praising Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's stance:

I thank Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for declaring an all-out war against the drug business and those who are associated with it. The drug business is the enemy of the state and an impediment to development. Zero tolerance is required, need to achieve the goal.

However, some people are comparing this drive to the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte's drug war, which have seen more than 20,000 deaths, most of them extrajudicial, in the past two years. Saikat Rushdie tweeted:

According to Bangladeshi officials, a record 40 million ya ba tablets were seized in 2017 while an estimated 250-300 million pills entered the market, compared to the 81,000 ya ba pills confiscated in 2010. The number of drug users in Bangladesh has grown to more than 7 million and most of them are young. Ya ba isn't cheap, and more and more users are becoming involved in violent crimes to fund their addiction.

‘Let us not WALK the path of EXTRAJUDICIAL killings’

Many have criticized the killings of people suspected of dealing drugs. Advocate Ziaur Rahman wrote on Facebook:

Bangladesh kills 13 drug dealers in major crackdown May 20 – Let us not WALK the path of EXTRAJUDICIAL killings. Superbad for #Democracy. Improve the law and order system and plug the miscreants into the system. Let the system take care of them. #StopEXTRAJUDICIALKilling.

In Bangladesh, “extrajudicial killing” or “crossfire” refers to the death of people by a bullet wound, oftentimes in the custody of a law enforcement agency; the usual narrative is that the victim was killed in crossfire between some criminals and the police.

According to statistics published by Human Rights Organization Odhikar, 1,758 people died in extrajudicial killings in the past decade. However, the police deny any such deliberate killings.

The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) has accolades for curbing crimes, but they stand accused of extrajudicial killings. Image by Nahid Sultan via Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 4.0

In the context of the recent drug war, terrorism expert and exiled journalist Tasneem Khalil termed extrajudicial killings as state-sponsored terrorism:

Innocent until guilty: that is the maxim of the law. In Bangladesh, police and the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) have killed 37 innocent people in just eight days. This is a state-sponsored terrorism.

Journalist Hasan Mamun wrote:

আমরা তো চাইছিলাম, ভয়াবহ মাদক ব্যবসায় জড়িত উচ্চ পর্যায়ের লোকজন এবার ধরা পড়ুক — যেহেতু বলা হয়েছিল ‘জিরো টলারেন্স'। চুনোপুঁটিদের বিরুদ্ধে এসব ঘোষণা করা আর বাস্তবায়নের কোনো মানে আছে কি? এটা মানুষকে আশান্বিত করবে না; রাঘববোয়ালরাও ভীত হবে না এতে।

We wanted that the kingpins of the drug cartel close to the government high officials would be arrested in this anti-drug drive, as they are talking about “zero tolerance”. Only by targeting the small fries will the drive be effective? This will not assure people and the kingpins will not be worried.

‘The law is also applicable to those who are in power, isn't it?’

One of the leading newspapers of Bangladesh published a list of what it said were the top drug dealers of the country, reportedly compiled by the Department of Narcotics Control. A number of politicians from the ruling party appear, including a member of parliament.

The home minister has warned journalists not to accuse him of any crime without evidence, but the inclusion of ruling party figures on the list has Bangladeshis further questioning the use of lethal force against suspected “low-level” dealers.

One young politician, Zunaed Saki, demanded that the ruling party should distance themselves from the listed individuals:

মাদক গুরুতর সমস্যা। সমাধানের প্রধান জায়গা হচ্ছে ক্ষমতার সাথে এর যোগসাজশ ছিন্ন করা। কিন্ত রাষ্ট্র যখন মানুষ মেরে ফেলাকে (ক্রসফায়ার) সমাধান হিসেবে হাজির করে, এর চাইতে ভয়াবহ প্রতারণা আর কি হতে পারে?

The drug is a serious problem. The best way to deal the problem is to cut of sponsorship by the powerful people. But when the state comes up with killing people (in crossfire) as a solution, how deceptive can it be?

Poet Ahmed Swapan Mahmud called for bringing the top drug lords to justice:

যারা ক্রসফায়ারড হইলেন তারা কে কত নম্বরে ছিলেন তালিকায়? জানি না।
যারা তালিকায় ১ থেকে ১১ নম্বরে আছেন তারা তো দেখছি ধরাছোঁয়ার বাইরে। কারণ কি?
আইন তো ক্ষমতার হাতে বন্দী, নাকি! গডফাদারদের বন্দী করেন।

Those who were killed in crossfire, who was in which rank according to the published list? I don't know. I see that the top ten are beyond our reach. Why? The law is also applicable to those who are in power, isn't it? Arrest the godfathers!

Much of the reporting on cases of “crossfire” or extrajudicial killings echoes the government statement only. Shafiqul Alam urged the journalists to be more faithful to their job and ask the right questions before writing the story:

Crossfires are the worst human rights violation in Bangladesh and many other countries in the world. Yet many reporters here don't know how to report a crossfire killing. They just copy and paste an official press statement, describing a story (most often lies) just the way the authorities wanted to tell it.

Ya ba is already a banned drug, but the government is set to elevate its status to Category A, a list that includes heroin, cocaine, pethidine, morphine and opium. Crimes related to drugs in this category can incur the death penalty as a maximum punishment, so it seems more death in the drug war could be on the horizon for Bangladesh.

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