The government of Bangladesh has declared a war on narcotics. It has proclaimed its intent to uproot the scourge of drugs from the land. “None will be spared”, came the stern warning from the authorities. Rapid Action Battalion, the elite law enforcement agency (LEA), swung into action from the first day of the holy month of Ramadan. Other agencies, including the police, were not to be left behind. They shored up the drive. All were imbibed with the spirit to cleanse the society of the evil. In this election year perhaps the purge became a handy tool to garner popular support for the ruling party. Claims have been made that general masses in Bangladesh, like their counterparts in Colombia, Philippines and Thailand during such drives, welcomed the move. After all, many were victims or likely victims of the drug menace. All want a respite.
The cleansing campaign has been on full steam for almost three weeks. Evidence of perceived success has not been difficult to come by. Over a 17-day period, 127 alleged drug peddlers have been liquidated. Official sources inform thousands of suspected peddlers have been detained, tens of thousands of yaba tablets and huge amount of cannabis have been seized and scores of lethal weapons including firearms with ammunition have been recovered.
Since the commencement of the operation time and again bigwigs in the government including the Minister for Home Affairs insisted that the drive was yielding results and reaffirmed it will continue. The actions of the LEAs in dealing with the drug threat have secured almost unqualified endorsement of the political leadership. Buoyed by such approval the incidents of death in situations of what in official parlance has been dubbed as “shootouts” and “encounters” continue to mount.
In contrast, rights activists, discerning observers and a section of foreign diplomats posted in Bangladesh, view such deaths as “extrajudicial killings”, a term fervidly rejected by the officials. The latter maintain, in prosecuting this war members of LEAs act within the bounds of the law, some even got injured. They admit, however, only in a few instances “collateral damages” might have been sustained, a small price the nation should be prepared to pay for the greater good, they argue. For the latter, attempts to draw analogy with the drive against the drug dealers in Duterte's Philippines is not only unfortunate, it's preposterous.
Like many other societies drug abuse is a major concern in Bangladesh. For long citizens have been demanding decisive action to address the problem. There has been a general acknowledgement that loopholes in the existing criminal justice system create opportunities for the wrong-doers to evade justice. Such conditions of distrust on the prevailing system both among the citizens and members of the law enforcement agencies prompt them to opt for quick fixes. “Shootouts” or “encounters” is one such method. The infamous “Operation Clean heart” under the BNP government has been the apt precursor of such quick-fix solution. Observers have noted that the current round of alleged extrajudicial killings constitute “the bloodiest anti-crime drive with death tolls already surpassing that of the Operation Clean Heart (57 deaths) or even the anti-militant drive after the Gulshan attack (80 deaths)”.
Bangladesh's war on narcotics has given rise to a number of unpalatable questions. Narratives of official handouts and advisories issued in the aftermath of the alleged “encounters” or “shootouts” claim that the victims get killed or succumb to injuries sustained when shootouts break out between their accomplices and members of LEAs as they (the victims) direct the latter to their secret hideouts and caches of drugs or arms, usually in the early hours of the morning. The narrative clearly establishes the fact that the victims were in custody of LEAs and thus their personal safety and security lay with the concerned agencies. If they are indeed taken to such hideouts, is not ensuring adequate security an imperative for the protection of members of LEAs as well as the alleged criminals? Do not the fanfare with which anti-narcotics drives are launched actually compromise their effectiveness as it forewarns the targeted individuals of impending action?
Concerns have also been expressed regarding the efficacy of such drives. So far, the campaign has largely netted low level peddlers. The bigwigs of drug trade and their patrons in the political quarters, civil administration and LEAs have remained unscathed. Police sources have claimed that a list of names of 554 drug dealers were prepared as early as 2012. The revised list compiled in 2014 included 1,200 names. Question has been raised despite the existence of such lists what precluded the LEAs in taking action against the alleged dealers for so long?
Media reports inform that names of influential members engaged in narcotics trade disappear from such lists when they go for clearance to the ministry of home affairs. One such recent list painstakingly prepared by agencies not only had the names of dealers but also the details of errant political party leaders, including two members of parliament of the ruling party, and police officers. Does not such discriminatory decision to drop the names of powerful persons dampen the spirit of those who take risk and put in much effort in preparing such lists? Does not the public have the right to know on what grounds names of the influential persons get deleted?
Press reports on the drug war further inform that a section of law enforcers have engaged in extortion by instilling fear among people. In two instances in Comilla and Gazipur, families of victims have claimed that their loved ones were killed in “gunfights” even after they had paid extortion money to the police. Mistaken identity had resulted in the death of an innocent man in Chittagong while family members of an alleged drug dealer in Netrokona reported that his involvement in political activism was the principal reason for his death in a staged shootout.
In a sensational case on June 1, 2018 wife of Akramul Huq, councillor of Teknaf upazilla, claimed that her husband was murdered in cold blood as a result of political vendetta. Asserting it was a premeditated murder at a press conference she presented audio recordings of phone conversations that point the fingers to a LEA. The case has created a furore in social media. Rights activists maintain the incident only vindicated their prediction that innocent lives are bound to be lost in dispensation of such illegal summary justice.
During the course of the anti-narcotics drive time and again citizens were told that law is applicable to all irrespective of their social standing. However, at a time when such iron fisted policy of zero-tolerance on drug front was being pursued, on May 31, 2018 Dhaka dailies carried the story of presidential clemency to a notorious convicted criminal Tofayel Ahmed Joseph, a former leader of the student wing of the ruling party. He subsequently joined the infamous Subrata Bain's gang known as Seven Star, exerted his power on the city and became one of the top criminals of the country. Joseph was sentenced to death by the High Court for murder of a political leader. On appeal the Supreme Court commuted the sentence to life term.
Press reports inform that the process of Joseph's release apparently began on March 31. In contrast to keeping him in a cabin in the second floor of the Dhaka Medical College Hospital where criminals with ailments are kept, Joseph was admitted to the 9th floor of the new building of the DMCH. “It has been done to free him secretly and to dodge the law enforcement and intelligence agencies,” a source was quoted by The Daily Star seeking anonymity. Joseph was accused in 10 other cases of extortion and possession of illegal firearms.
Even if allegations of drug peddling against the victims of alleged extrajudicial killings were true, the fact remains under the law of the land that the individuals concerned had the right to defend themselves in the court of law. The statements of senior functionaries of the state and those of LEAs convey the message that as alleged peddlers are engaged in a nefarious trade they forfeit the right to seek protection of the law. Clearly such a position by responsible members of the government betrays their serious disregard of the law.
As heinous a crime drug peddling is, it does not accord the LEAs any authority to act arbitrarily beyond the purview of the law. The constitution of the republic and the country's international commitment oblige them to deal with the problem only within the limits of the law. Cardinal among those are presumption of innocence until proven guilty and the right to access due procedure.
A challenge was thrown to critics of the drug war to furnish evidence whether so far any innocent person became a victim of the ongoing drive. Suffice it to say that the law of the land accords the judiciary the sole authority to determine if anyone is guilty of a crime. Until an accused is pronounced guilty by such a competent authority the law deems him innocent. One hopes in prosecuting this war on drugs the executive branch respects this time-tested tenet.
CR Abrar teaches international relations at the University of Dhaka.