Anti-drug drive draws global scorn as a pre-election stunt
Shahid Islam
26 Jun,2018

If cunning politics has an edge more than one, this is it. PM Sheikh Hasina heads for Canada to attend a special outreach session of the G-7 summit at the invitation of the Canadian PM Justin Trudeau amidst mass coverage in the Canadian and other international media about indiscriminate rights violations in the ongoing anti-drug campaign in Bangladesh. Hasina does carry a formidable defence to brief any global leader on the matter, but the merciless pre-election anti-drug campaign has as many dimensions as an abstract art would provoke in the eyes of an onlooker.Outwardly, the G-7 outreach session is slated to focus on healthy oceans and resilient coastal communities. Yet, two other prominent issues are expected to dominate a slated bilateral meeting in the sideline of the Bangladeshi and the Canadian PMs.

Spotlight Nur Chowdhury

Sources say requests have been dispatched through diplomatic channel to include in the bilateral agenda the issue of the repatriation of Lt. Col. NurChowdhury who had claimed refugee status in Canada in 1996 while a death sentence hangs on him at a Bangladeshi court where all the accused of the Mujib killing in 1975 have been tried, convicted and, most of them already lynched. This is as old a story as a movie already seen many times. From the Canadian side, this time too, same response is expected on the thorny issue of Col. Chowdhury’s extradition or deportation from Canada to face justice in Bangladesh.

The issue had embittered bilateral ties for almost a decade due to Canada’s persistent insistence that the matter of Chowdhury’s deportation from Canada relies solely on the Canadian court that bars any extradition or deportation of foreign citizens under refugee claim who are likely to face death penalty in their home countries; something the Canadian legal system had rescinded long ago by imposing life-long imprisonment as the highest form of capital punishment.

Negative media exposure

From the Canadian PM’s side, the current round of alleged extrajudicial killings will certainly cause concern for the Bangladeshi PM due to the mass killing constituting the bloodiest anti-crime drive with death tolls already surpassing that of the Operation Clean Heart (57), and the post-Holey Artisan anti-militant drive in which a total of 80 were killed. Police sources maintain that a list of 554 drug dealers were prepared as early as 2012, which got revised in 2014 and the names of suspects rose to 1,200. The routinely executed extra-judicial killing is learnt to be in the agenda of the Canadian PM due to the issue boggling minds and raising concerns in all G-7 member nations.

Prior to the Bangladesh PM’s Canada visit, the eminently credible Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) had splashed a bold headline on June 1 that read: “127 dead and 9,000 arrested in Duterte-style drug crackdown in Bangladesh;” an exposure that echoed sentiments of many other global leaders and rights group on what is happening in Bangladesh under the anti-drug war rubric. “Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina authorized the anti-drug campaign that human rights activists have compared to the aggressive drug war launched by President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines,” the CBC report claimed.

Little wonder the brutality and the ferocity of the campaign have raised eyebrows both at home and abroad.  Following a meeting with home minister Assaduzzaman Khan Kamal, the U.S. ambassador, Marcia Bernicat, voiced serious concern about the ongoing bloodshed and said:”Of course I express concern about the number of people dying.” She added, “In a democracy, everybody has the right to justice.”Bernicat asked:  “Isn’t there any alternative to the killings to end the drugs menace and terrorism?”

Human-rights activist Sultana Kamal has demanded fresh investigations into the recent killings in alleged shootouts during anti-drug raids.  Yet, unless there is a regime change, conducting an inquiry into the killings will be difficult “because the families of the victims are too scared to file any complaint,” says Hong Kong-based legal rights activist Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman, who acts as a liaison officer for the Asian Legal Resource Center (ALRC).
Unlawful killing

The PM may have prepared a defence to stay on her ground politically, but her law enforcers are undoubtedly acting out of the bounds of law.  Official handouts and briefs made in the aftermath of the alleged “encounters” or “shootouts” claim that the victims get killed or are injured when shootouts occur between their accomplices and the law enforcers. Eye witnesses however say, as in all other extra judicial killings of the past, victims are arrested first, and then killed.  Even the Chairman of the country’s own Human Rights Commission, Qazi Riazul Haque, became critical of the anti-drug campaign’s excessive use of force and resorting to extra-judicial killings. In a letter addressed to the home minister, the HRC chairman said: “The state is the primary protector of fundamental rights. Therefore, the state and all government organizations are responsible for establishing and ensuring safeguards enshrined in the constitution. Recently, many alleged drug dealers killed and wounded members of law enforcement forces in drug-related operations have become a cause of concern throughout the country……..The primary protector of basic rights of the people is the State. So the State and all government agencies are bound to uphold and ensure the rights protected in the Constitution.”

These killings are unconstitutional too, having the potential to bring law enforcers under accountability sometimes in the future. Article 35(3) of the Constitution mandates all accused of criminal offences to get “open and speedy justice by an independent and neutral court established by the law.”  Hence, these and other extra-judicial killings, mainly of political oppositions, are arbitrary actions of the law enforcers that laws never support.

On this and other rights-related matters, the Coordination of NGOs for Adivasis or CNA, Network of Non-Mainstreamed Marginalized Communities (NNMC), Association of Land Reform and Development (ALRD) and Kapaeeng Foundation made their observations lately during the UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of human rights in Bangladesh. Shamsul Huda, executive director of ALRD, said: “Extrajudicial killings are continuing unabated in the country. Killing criminals, including drug dealers and others, in the name of crossfire,is a violation of human rights.”

Extortion, Politicized mercy and killing

Of course the killings are extra-judicial, but of more serious concern is the political bias that goes into the grind. Many media reports claim that names of influential members engaged in narcotics trading often disappear from such lists when they go for clearance to the ministry of home affairs.

For instance, one such recent list included names of a ruling party leader, two MPs, and two police officers, which got deleted at the ministry level, according to media reports. Other press reports on the anti- drug war further inform that a section of law enforcers are engaged in extortion by instilling fear among people. In Comilla and Gazipur, according to reports, families of victims have claimed that their loved ones were killed in “gunfights” even after they had paid extortion money to the police. Besides, 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 opposition political activism was the main reason for his death in a ‘staged shootout.’

More sensational is the case of Akramul Hoque whose wife claimed that on June 1, 2018 her husband, an incumbent councillor of Teknaf upazilla, was murdered in cold blood as a result of political vendetta. She produced video of the conversation the family has had with the victim until multiple bullets tore through his body.In another incident, presidential clemency was accorded to a notorious convicted criminal, Tofayel Ahmed Joseph, who happened to be a former leader of the ruling party’s student wing. Joseph was sentenced to death by the High Court for murder of a political leader, and, upon judicial review, the Supreme Court commuted the sentence to life term, which the president pardoned.

That’s not all. Eva, daughter  of one HabiburRahman of Chittagong, claimed: “My father was framed in drug cases and killed in a fake crossfire because he was a political activist opposing the government.”  Police however claimed:“Habibur Rahman, 42, was shot dead in his hideout in Chittagong on May 18 after his gang fired upon RAB men and they fired back in self-defense, leading to a gunfight. A statement from the officials added that “Rahman was a known yaba peddler with 12 drug cases pending against him.” Rebutting the police claim, Rahman’s relatives told the Voice of America (VOA) that men who they believe were security officers in plainclothes picked Rahman up on May 17 before shooting him dead some hours after.

“At least 10 of those killed in the ongoing anti-drug campaign are activists of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).  They were falsely branded as narcotics traders”, said Humaiun Kobir, BNP’s international affairs secretary. Another BNP official, AKM Wahiduzzaman, accused the government of ignoring known drug dealers associated with the ruling Awami League party. “In January, the Director of Narcotics Control (of Bangladesh) issued a list of the country’s yaba dealers. Ruling party parliamentarian Abdur Rahman Badi topped that list,” Wahiduzzaman told the VOA.
Myanmar nexus

Viewed from the broader perspective, the pre-election anti-drug drive has regional and global dimensions that need prioritized attention.  For instance, the CBC report claimed:“Many of the killings have occurred in areas close to the border with Myanmar —the source of much of South East Asia’s illicit drugs. Heroin, opium, and pot are all produced in its hard-to-reach outlying states, often under the watchful eye of rebel groups or the military. But meth — or yaba as it is known locally — has become Myanmar’s biggest export.  And the trade isn’t just a problem in Bangladesh. Last week, customs officials in Malaysia discovered nearly 1.2 tonnes of crystal meth disguised as tea in a container at Kuala Lumpur’s port. The shipment, valued at $20 million US, had originated in Myanmar.”

According to Bangladesh’s Department of Narcotics Control (DNC), every year 300 million yaba pills are smuggled into Bangladesh for use by an estimated 7 million Bangladeshi addicts. If the main source of the drug is Myanmar, which also pushed into Bangladesh more than 1.1 million Rohingya refugees, Bangladesh should stop chucking its thumb and instead take Myanmar into task with collaborations from international community.  It will not do so, because, as the CBC report rightly observed: “The new drug war seems to have more to do with the upcoming elections and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s bid for another term.” That’s patriotism half naked.