Drug users are now trying to turn their lives around to stay safe from extrajudicial killings as security forces launched a violent anti-narcotics crackdown all over the country.
The operation that started May 4, gained momentum in mid-May, when all units of the police joined Rapid Action Battalion in the drive.
Ministers and top government officials continue to assert that they launched the drive to purge the country of the curse of substance abuse and build a narcotics-free nation. The operation has, however, been marred by its controversial modus operandi, widespread allegations of human rights abuses, and alleged favoritism towards drug peddlers associated with the ruling Awami League.
Asked, the police headquarters refused to reveal the number of people killed in the crackdown, claiming they do not maintain such records.
However, according to media reports and sources at police units across the country, over 153 people, mostly suspected drug dealers, were killed in so-called gunfights in 49 districts since the launch of the drive.
Other estimates show that the figure was over 140, as it could not ascertain if some alleged narcotics dealers were killed in firefights among themselves or with security forces.
Over 13,000 suspected drug traders were also arrested and around 10,000 cases filed until Wednesday, according to police headquarters sources.
RAB said they had arrested 4,114 “drug peddlers” and recovered narcotics worth over Tk67.15 crore. Mobile courts run by the RAB sentenced 3,521 of the arrestees to seven years’ rigorous imprisonment, while the remaining 593 were fined.
Sahely Ferdous, assistant inspector general of police (media), said the total amount of drug items recovered in the last one month was worth over Tk70 crore.
Top police officials said they were conducting drives following “thorough investigations and arresting only listed drug dealers.”
The ongoing operation might not help fully destroy narcotics supply chains in Bangladesh but largely disintegrated the rings of notorious drug traders, they claimed.
“We could not destroy the supply chain of drugs, but managed to rupture the drug dealers’ network. We are trying to arrest those who are on the run and establish an effective surveillance system so that no new drug barons could emerge,” Sahely said.
She added that the drives would help create awareness about drugs, especially among those who have not yet been lured into substance addiction.
However, the operation created a huge public outcry after Teknaf municipality councilor Ekramul Haque was killed in a “shootout” with the RAB in Teknaf upazila of Cox’s Bazar on May 26.
RAB claimed Ekramul had been involved in drug peddling.
Refuting the claim, the deceased’s wife Ayesha Begum alleged that he had been killed in cold blood, not in a gunfight as the anti-crime taskforce claimed.
She also gave reporters a total of four audio clips that recorded the terrifying conversations between Ekramul and his wife, and one of their two daughters, just before he died in a hail of bullets.
The audio clips, recorded on a mobile phone, also captured sounds of gunfire and the groans of a dying man.
Even though the authorities try to establish the fact that such a crackdown was essential to save the nation from negative consequences of drug abuse, the United Nations and human rights defenders condemned the move and voiced their concerns over the increasing deaths in “gunfights”.
Issuing a statement June 7, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said: “I am gravely concerned that such a large number of people have been killed.
“We are calling on the [Bangladesh] government to follow through with this commitment and to ensure that this is not just any investigation; it has to be an independent, transparent, meaningful investigation with the view to bringing to justice the perpetrators of these killings.”