Bangladesh’s ongoing anti-narcotics drive has turned into a bloodbath, leaving over a hundred citizens dead in less than a month.

The Sheikh Hasina government claims the soaring popularity of methamphetamine, a cheap and highly addictive drug commonly known as meth, has forced it to launch a “war on drugs”. But human rights activists accuse the state of carrying out extrajudicial killings under the cover of the anti-narcotics campaign.

In Bangladesh, meth is mostly sold as pills called yaba, a Thai word meaning “crazy medicine”. The pill is usually melted on tinfoil, releasing plumes of scented vapor which the user inhales. According to the country’s Department of Narcotics Control of Bangladesh, there are seven million drug addicts in the country, five million of whom are hooked on yaba.

The narcotics department estimates that over 70% of yaba pills come from laboratories across the border in western Myanmar. The drug is synthesised from pseudoephedrine and caffeine, which are smuggled from India, China and Vietnam.

The law enforcement agencies reportedly had all the information needed to tackle the menace but chose not to act for years. But they launched an all-out offensive on May 15 after Hasina directed the elite police force Rapid Action Battalion to tackle the drug problem as it had the “militancy problem”, another offensive campaign marred by allegations of extrajudicial killings.

Since the prime minister’s call, a total of 129 suspected drug dealers and traffickers have been killed, allegedly in “gunfights” with the Rapid Action Battalion, the police or “gang members of with rival gangs”.

The state has also arrested around 12,000 suspected drug dealers and tried them in special courts, with many handed jail sentences of seven days to six months.

Referring to the drug problem, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan recently told AFP that “this war will continue until we bring it under complete control”. He brushed aside allegations that innocent people had been killed, insisting that there was “no question” that those killed were drug dealers. “They are not good people,” he said. “There are 10 to 12 cases against each one of them.”

Police raid a place suspected to be used by drug dealers. Photo credit: Mahmud Hossain Opu

Culture of impunity’

Independent South Asia analyst Olof Blomqvist argued that the killings bear all the hallmarks of extrajudicial executions that the Bangladeshi security forces have been guilty of in the past. “It is well documented that the security forces, including the Rapid Action Battalion, have been responsible for unlawful killings and enforced disappearances in recent years, with victims including both political opponents of the government and ‘ordinary’ criminals,” he said. “If the same tactics are now applied to alleged drug dealers it rings all kinds of alarm bells.”

Drawing parallels with the situation in the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte is running a deadly “war against drugs”, Blomqvist warned, “The murderous drug war in the Philippines shouldn’t be a model for any country.”

Activists are also alarmed that Bangladesh is mulling to bring the death penalty for drug kingpins, with 32 ministries having recommended it already. The argument is that exemplary punishment will help tackle the drug menace. The activists point out that Bangladesh’s drug control policy is already skewed towards harsh measures that criminalise users, yet it has failed to contain the drug trade or catch the kingpins running it.

“The Bangladeshi authorities are seriously misguided if they think they can tackle drug crime by committing even more violent, illegal acts,” said Blomqvist. “Bangladesh needs to implement policies that tackle the root causes of drug crime while respecting both human rights and the rule of law.”

He said the recent spate of killings of suspected drug dealers must be investigated and “those responsible for rights violations should be held to account”.

Condemning the alleged extrajudicial killings, Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said, “There is a pervasive culture of impunity for violations by security forces, and regardless of political affiliation the authorities deny these abuses and refuse to hold those responsible to account.”

She said her organisation has previously documented numerous cases of custodial deaths involving Bangladeshi security forces. “RAB, when it was initially set up, was notorious for this,” she added, referring to the elite police force, “and we have said that it should disbanded.”

Faisal Mahmud is a journalist based in Dhaka.