Are Bangladesh activists being killed amid the war on drugs?

Alamgir Badsha, an opposition activist, died late July. He’s one of more than 200 people who have been killed since May.

Security personnel block the road where police shot dead a suspected militant who tried to enter a security checkpost on a motorcycle armed with explosives in Khilgaon,
The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) is a paramilitary force tasked with battling a so-called war on drugs in Bangladesh [Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters]

In the early morning of July 24, the dead body of 35-year-old Alamgir Hossain Badsha, an activist belonging to the student wing of Bangladesh‘s main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), was found near a gas station in Sonargaon, a town 20km from the capital, Dhaka.

The paramilitary body, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), said that Badsha, who they accused of being a drug dealer, had been killed during a gun fight with its officers who had earlier been tipped off about a drug deal.

“When officers arrived there, Badsha started shooting at them. When RAB fired back, Badsha was killed,” Sheikh Billal Hossain, a senior policeman, told journalists.

He said that they recovered a gun, bullets and 15 units of the drug – Yaba, a mix of methamphetamine and caffeine – from his body. 

According to authorities, Badsha’s killing was an inevitable consequence of the government’s determined campaign, which began in May 2018, to deal with drug criminals who shoot at the sight of law enforcement officers when an arrest is attempted.

The RAB was established when the BNP was in power, and brings together military and police. It describes itself as an elite anti-crime and anti-terrorism agency of the Bangladesh police.

However, Badsha’s wife, Suraiya Begum, claims that the RAB story is a fabrication and that her husband was shot dead while in state custody.

Her story adds to a growing number of claims by families of those killed in anti-drug operations.

Begum says that on the day before her husband was killed, he had gone to the nearby house of Jehangir, a distant relative, to help prepare food for a funeral.

“When he got there, he found that the supply of meat was not adequate so he took a cousin of Jahangir’s with him to go to the bazaar in Baroipara,” she said.

Jehangir’s cousin, who requested anonymity, told Al Jazeera: “We were looking for Sadrul, a meat seller, but he was not present in the bazaar. We waited near [a] tree, and I went to the nearby stall to buy cigarettes.

“When I came back I saw three to four men dressed in plain clothes pick Badsha up and put him into an ash-coloured microbus.

Jehangir’s cousin suspected that they were law enforcement officers, but was not certain.

Badsha’s wife went to two police stations as soon as she heard, but both said they could not provide any information.

Begum says that Badsha was picked up and killed because of his involvement in opposition politics. 

“He was never involved with any drug business,” she said. “You can ask anyone in the area, they will tell you Badsha was never involved with this.”

RAB denies these claims.

Senior policeman Alef Uddin said that Alamgir was a drug dealer and known in the area as “Beer Alamgir”, meaning he sold and drank beer, which is illegal.

“He was in our list of drug dealers,” he told Al Jazeera.

When asked about the alleged pick-up by law enforcement authorities, he said: “We don’t know anything about that.”

‘211 people killed’ since May

Alamgir Hossain Badsha died in July [Courtesy of the Badsha family]
Alamgir Hossain Badsha died in July [Courtesy of the Badsha family]

According to statistics from the Dhaka-based human rights organisation Odhikar, from May 15 to July 31, 2018, 211 people have been killed in the government’s so-called war on drugs. They have also arrested nearly 20,000 people.

The organisation’s analysis of media reports, along with its own inquiries, suggest that at least 77 of the 211 people who allegedly died in gunfights, were in state custody at the time they were killed, having earlier been picked up by law enforcement authorities, often directly from their homes in front of witnesses.

There are no official government figures on the extent of drug abuse in Bangaldesh, but Jamal Uddin Ahmed, head of the Department of Narcotics Control, told in May that he believes there are around 7 million addicts.

Professor Ali Riaz, of the department of politics and government at Illinois state university, believes extrajudicial killings can be used for political gain.

Given the extent of drug abuse, the government thinks that if they respond to the crisis in a strong manner, this will give them political mileage with the pubic,” he said.

However, Riaz argues that the killings are also intended to instill fear within the opposition, and contain dissent.

“Fear has played a major role in devising this strategy, ” Riaz says. “It sends a chilling message to everybody, including those within the political opposition, that you can be identified and killed and no-one will be held accountable.”

The killings started after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who leads the ruling Bangladesh Awami League party, directed the RAB to conduct operations against those who – in her words – “sell, transport and consume drugs”, early in May.

“We’ve earned huge successes by conducting drives against militancy. So I would like to request the elite force members to continue its operation against drugs like militancy,” she said at the time.

International response

Initially, the international response to the killings was muted.

In its statement on June 1, 2018, the UN Drug Office did not criticise law enforcement authorities but called on government authorities to “adhere to their commitments to promote balanced, human rights-based approaches to drug control.”

In its statement three days later, the local European Union delegations only referred to the killings as “excessive force in the drive against narcotics”.

The Bangladesh government is enjoying impunity in respect of human rights violations.

by Adilur Rahman Khan, secretary of human rights organisation Odhikar

However, on June 6, the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights released a statement which “condemned the alleged extra-judicial killings of suspected drug offenders in Bangladesh and urged the authorities to ensure that these serious human rights violations are immediately halted and perpetrators brought to justice”.

Adilur Rahman Khan, Odhikar’s secretary, thinks that the international community has other things on its mind.

“The apparent reluctance of the international community to take a more forceful stand against these extra judicial murders can in part be put down to their focus on the Rohingya refugees [in Bangladesh] and not wanting to do anything that might effect the Bangladesh government’s cooperation with them on that issue,” he said.

“As a result, the Bangladesh government is enjoying impunity in respect of human rights violations.”

Barrister Moudud Ahmed, a senior leader of the BNP, said: “We all want the drug problem to be removed from our country. But the way the Awami League government is doing it is questionable.

“People are being abducted and they are later found to be dead. This is killing people extra judicially. We demand investigation into these murders.”

The case of Akramul Haque

An earlier case that shook the public involved the death of Akramul Haque, 46, on May 27.

As with Badsha, RAB claimed that Haque was drug dealer who was killed in a gunfight and that pistols and drugs were found on his dead body.

However, in early June, his wife Ayesha held a press conference and played a series of four recorded phone conversations between him and his family which she argued showed that her husband, an activist of the governing party, was “murdered” whilst in the custody of law enforcement officers.

There are often inter-party feuds in Bangladesh, which low-level governing party activists sometimes get caught up in.

In the last recorded conversation, a man believed to be Haque says: “I am not involved”, and then a gunshot is heard. 

A voice can then be heard saying: “Take out the bullets.”

An order is then given to scatter empty cartridges and another voice asks: “Have his hands been untied?”

The website of The Daily Star was blocked by the telecommunication regulator for about 18 hours after it published the recordings, the only newspaper in Bangladesh to have done so.

The Home Minister Asaduzzman Khan said in early June that a magistrate was conducting an investigation and would consider the recorded tapes.

Source: Al Jazeera