Human Rights Watch urges Bangladesh to suspend its ‘war on drugs’

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Dhaka, June 8: The death toll in a Bangladeshi “zero tolerance” crackdown on drugs has risen to 140, with about 18,000 people arrested, the Government said on Thursday, as a group of activists urged the UN to step in to stop the bloodshed.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina approved the anti-narcotics campaign in early May to tackle the spread of methamphetamines but the killings have raised fears among rights groups of a bloody Philippine-style campaign to wipe out drugs.
“In a manner reminiscent of the Philippines drug war, Bangladeshi police justified these killings as supposedly happening during ‘gunfights’ with rival gangs or law enforcement officers acting in self-defence during anti-drug operations,” the International Drug Policy Consortium said in a statement, urging UN agencies to act.
“Evidence worldwide have shown that such a violent and abusive approach has not managed to curb the illicit drug market, but it can be used as a political tool to win political elections and target unwanted opposition,” said the consortium of nearly 200 non-governmental organisations.
Their call joins a chorus of international pressure on Bangladesh to stop the violence, which a Home Ministry official said had claimed 140 lives, with some 18,000 under arrest.
The war on drugs in the Philippines has killed thousands since President Rodrigo Duterte took office 2 years ago.
Duterte won a landslide victory after vowing to crack down on what he called the”drug menace”.
Hasina, who faces a general election later in 2018, has dismissed accusations of extra-judicial killings, and said the crackdown enjoys popular support.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein on Wednesday called for independent investigations into the killings and said there was a “high likelihood” that many people may have been arbitrarily detained.
The consortium also asked the UN to advise Bangladesh against bringing in the death penalty for drug-related offences, which is under consideration in the South Asian nation.
The main Opposition party says the killings have a political angle, with 5 of their supporters gunned down so far.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has urged Bangladesh to suspend its ‘war on drugs’ campaign, and order an independent investigation into the allegations of “extrajudicial killings” during the campaign.
The human rights watchdog said the campaign should remain suspended until proper training and procedures were put in place to ensure security forces act in conformity with legal standards.
“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),” the New York-based international rights body said a press release.
The statement added: “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 of HRW.
“Until this spate of killings is independently investigated and proper procedures are put in place to protect the public, the campaign should be suspended,” he added.
Bangladesh 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 as many as 10,000 people had been arrested as part of the government’s ‘war on drugs’.
Citing reports by “independent media and human rights defenders”, the HRW statement pointed out that many of these killings were carried out at night even as family members countered government accounts that these killings occurred during gunfights.
It urged the government to establish an independent commission to investigate the allegations of extrajudicial killings, saying this was particularly important as the Bangladesh government, “despite previous commitments”, had failed to hold Rapid Action Battalion or other security forces accountable.
“Everyone deserves a fair trial and to be safe from summary execution by state security forces,” Adams said, adding: “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.” (Agencies)