Narcos hard to put behind bars
Although Department of Narcotics Control (DNC) shows rising drug cases and arrests in its annual round-up every year, more than half of the cases end up in acquittals.
In fact, the conviction rate in narcotics cases has been decreasing over the past eight years, with the rate coming down to 40 percent in 2021 from 64 percent in 2014, according to DNC's Annual Drug Report 2021.
For this, DNC officials and lawyers blamed faulty case filings, weak investigation and case statements, and absence of credible witnesses.
Take, for instance, the case of Arif Hossain and Korban Ali.
The youths were arrested 18 years ago with 80 bottles of Phensedyl near Rahmat Camp in the capital's Pallabi area. Following the arrest, DNC inspector Nazrul Islam filed a narcotics case against the two on May 30, 2004.
On July 20 that year, Abdul Mannan Gazi, a DNC inspector and the case's investigation officer (IO), pressed charges against the two accused. Six people, including the complainant and IO, were made prosecution witnesses in the case.
But the IO and another witness did not appear before the court for testimony.
After a long-drawn-out trial, Special Tribunal for Prevention of Public Safety Disturbances of Dhaka on April 10 this year acquitted Arif and Korban, as the charges brought against them could not be proven.
In the verdict, the judge said there was no witness to the offences, and prosecution failed to present the other witnesses before court, even after 102 dates were passed for the case's disposal.
Mohammad Anwer Shahadat Shawn, special public prosecutor at the tribunal, told The Daily Star, "Those who were made witnesses to the seizure told the court that they did not know about the matter. For this, the charges against the accused could not be proven."
"Absence of witnesses is a major reason behind the low conviction rate in narcotics cases," he added.
A total of 73,312 cases are now pending with the court for disposal, according to DNC's report. It shows that the conviction rate was 64 percent in 2014, when 11,723 narcotics cases were filed, in which 12,590 people were accused.
In 2021, the number of both cases and arrestees rose to 20,598 and 21,992, respectively, but only 40 percent of cases were disposed of that year.
Tawohidul Haque, assistant professor at Dhaka University's Institute of Social Welfare and Research, said, "Many of the criminals got acquitted due to faulty and incomplete investigation, improper presentation of cases in court, and weak statements of prosecution witnesses."
The acquittals are only fueling drug-related crimes in the country, as many criminals go back to the drug trade once they get out of jail, he observed.
Abu Jafar Salehin, a prosecutor of DNC, said they are trying to improve the conviction rate by ensuring the presence of witnesses. "We are sending summonses to witnesses and contacting them over phone."
Asked why they fail to produce credible witnesses, Jafar said he is not aware of any such issues.
Md Azizul Islam, additional director general of DNC, said, "We only make those who were present during arrests and creating seizure lists as witnesses." But in many cases, the witnesses do not appear, as they are not obligated to do so, he said.
"We are aware of the low conviction rate and are trying to improve the condition. We are also training officials about dealing with narcotics cases and ensuring the presence of witnesses," he added.
DNC appointed 68 prosecutors across the country in 2019 to improve the conviction rate and expedite disposal of long-pending cases. But the disposal rate has not improved.
For instance, police arrested Mohammad Babul and Mahammad Golap with 100 bottles of Phensedyl from Uttar Bishil area of the capital's Shah Ali on June 4, 2006.
A case was filed with Shah Ali Police Station that day.
After 28 days, Anisur Rahman, a sub-inspector of police's detective branch (DB), pressed charges against the duo, and on November 26 that year, a Dhaka court framed charges against them.
Only three out of 10 prosecution witnesses gave their depositions till June 27, 2010, according to court documents.
Since then, the remaining seven witnesses, including IO Anisur Rahman, have not appeared before the court to testify, despite the court issuing several summonses.
The case has recently been transferred to Speedy Trial Tribunal-4 of Dhaka for quick disposal.
Asked about the poor conviction rate, Tohidul Islam, additional deputy commissioner of the transnational crime unit of Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime, said the fate of narcotics cases depends on proof of seizure.
"It can only be proved by witnesses' statements, as video footage of seized drugs are not accepted in court as evidence," he said.
The Cabinet Division on July 25 gave the final approval to the draft of Evidence (Amendment) Act, 2022, which will allow electronic records and digital data to be admissible in court.
Once passed in parliament, the proposed amendment will give both the prosecution and defence the opportunity to produce digital evidence.
SMUGGLING ON THE RISE
DNC's annual report shows that narcotics smuggling, especially of yaba, also increased in 2021, when compared with the previous year.
The report shows that the amount of yaba seized, which is smuggled into the country from Myanmar, increased by 45.88 percent between 2020 and 2021.
A similar scenario has been witnessed with regards to heroin and cannabis, which mainly enter from India. The amount of heroin seized by law enforcers increased by 109.67 percent during the same period, the report reads.
Only eight to 10 percent of total smuggled narcotics can be seized by law enforcers, so 90 percent flood the market. Usually when smuggling increases so do seizures, according to officials and experts.