(New York) – The Bangladesh government should order an independent investigation into allegations of extrajudicial killings during its new “war on drugs,” Human Rights Watch said today.
The campaign against drugs has led to more than 100 violent deaths at the hands of security forces, according to local media and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). It should be suspended until proper training and procedures are put in place to ensure that security forces act in conformity with Bangladesh and international legal standards.
“While drugs are a serious problem in Bangladesh, any campaign against them should be conducted within the rule of law and avoid the use of unnecessary force,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Until this spate of killings is independently investigated and proper procedures are put in place to protect the public, the campaign should be suspended.”
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced a “war on drugs” in early May 2018 after a reported rise in methamphetamine sales and use. On May 30, Hasina said that as many as 10,000 people had been arrested in the war on drugs.
Independent media and human rights defenders report that many of these killings are carried out at night. Family members counter government accounts that these killings occurred during gunfights. In one example, Habibur Rahman’s family members say that he was last seen in the custody of men in civilian clothes. On May 19, the authorities announced that Rahman, 38, had been killed in a gunfight with the notorious Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), which has a long history of responsibility for extrajudicial killings. Two other men identified as Sumon Patwari, 44, and Abul Kalam, 47, were found dead along with Rahman, media reported.
In another case, a Dhaka-based human rights group said that Islam Rony was arrested at his home. His family told journalists that the Detective Branch of the police then demanded bribes to secure his safety and release. They paid the bribes, but Rony was allegedly killed that same day.
In a recent case that has led to widespread public outrage, Akramul Haque was allegedly killed by members of RAB. His family has released audio recordings of phone conversations, including one in which gunshots that apparently killed him can be heard. The veracity of the tapes has yet to be verified. RAB claimed that Haque was killed in a gunfight. The home minister has said that the audio recordings will be investigated.
After Haque’s death, the chair of the National Human Rights Commission called for a magistrate’s inquiry. Mizanur Rahman, the commission’s former chair, said: “It has severely questioned the entire operation.… There is a big question over its legitimacy and law and order. Those who are involved in human rights in some way or even the ordinary people who initially supported this campaign now realize that any family may fall in danger if anybody chooses to bypass the law.… This incident is a clear example.”
Bangladesh NGOs have said that the Bangladesh government should investigate these allegations. “We are noticing that many people are being victimized of extra-judicial killing every day,” 10 eminent citizens said in a statement. “It’s unimaginable in a democratic state and society. Such type of incident is enough to make the entire anti-drug drive questionable.”
On June 6, the United Nations 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, and that the government reaction has been to assure the public that none of these individuals were ‘innocent’ but that mistakes can occur in an anti-narcotics drive.… People do not lose their human rights because they use or sell drugs. The presumption of innocence and the right to due process must be at the forefront of any efforts to tackle crimes.”
On June 4, the European Union said: “We expect the authorities to ensure that all incidents involving the deaths of alleged criminal suspects are investigated fully and in accordance with due processes... Bangladesh has committed to uphold the rule of law and ensure that all law-enforcement actions are carried out in accordance with the law and in adherence to international standards and norms, including with appropriate safeguards over the use of force.” Media reported that United States ambassador Marcia Bernicat said: “Of course I express concern about the number of people dying. Everyone in a democracy has a right to due process.”
Human Rights Watch urged the government to establish an independent commission to investigate allegations of extrajudicial killings. This is particularly important as, despite previous commitments, the government has failed to hold RAB or other security forces accountable for credible allegations of similar abuses.
The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials state that “law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. They may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result.” Whenever the use of force is unavoidable, security forces should “exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence.”
“Everyone deserves a fair trial and to be safe from summary execution by state security forces,” Adams said. “The government of Bangladesh has long claimed that it has a zero-tolerance policy against abuses, yet we continue to see an ongoing pattern of wrongful killings, whether it is against alleged drug dealers, political opponents, or others.”