Bangladeshi law enforcers have killed over 50 alleged drug dealers in “gunfights” in just 11 days across the country, prompting observers to say the government has declared a “war on drugs.”

Human right activists have drawn a parallel with the war against drugs that Filipino strongman Rodrigo Duterte declared in his country after assuming power and warn that “extrajudicial killings” won’t solve Bangladesh’s drug problem.

There has been no official declaration of “war” like in the Philippines, but the nationwide crackdown against drug peddlers began after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina asked the country’s elite police force — Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) — on May 3 to tackle the prevailing widespread usage of drugs.

According to Department of Narcotics Control data, there are at least seven million drug addicts, including about 5 million hooked on yaba, or methamphetamine. Huge amounts of the “yaba” are allegedly smuggled into the country from the Golden Triangle in eastern Myanmar. Officials seized about 40 million pills last year, but estimate a far greater amount enters the country undetected.

Hasina said on May 3: “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 also said, people who make, sell, transport and consume drugs are equally guilty, “so actions will have to be taken keeping this in mind.”

The elite force started its nationwide anti-narcotics campaign a day later. At a press conference on May 14, Rapid Action Battalion chief Benazir Ahmed warned of a “stronger stance” to prevent drug abuse.

Ahmed said they would prioritize ensuring punishment [against drug dealers] through mobile courts on the spot and if necessary would lodge regular cases at police stations. “But … due to the backlog, these cases normally take a lot of time to get processed,” he said.

Since his press conference, at least 61 alleged drug peddlers have been killed in supposed “gunfights” with law enforcers across the country.

Meanwhile, the squad’s mobile court has also sentenced 2,471 people, most of whom were addicts, while 347 were drug dealers. Those convicted were also fined nearly Tk 30 lakh (US$36,000) collectively. Police headquarters said over 500 people had been detained in the same period.

Who’s getting killed?

Most of the “drug dealers” were killed in 19 different districts in alleged shoot-outs with law enforcers or “rival gang members”, according to both police and local media reports.

In almost all the cases, local police and members of the elite force acted on a tip-off, conducted a raid on a house where the alleged peddlers resided and were compelled to engage in a “shoot-out” after the dealers opened gunfire.

But family members of some of the deceased claim otherwise.

A relative of Amzad Hossain, 32, who was killed in a “gunfight” with police in Netrokona district in the northeast late on Monday night, said Hossain was picked up by police from his home in the afternoon before his death. Later, his body was found with a bullet wound, the relative told Asia Times.

Ashraful Alam, an Additional Police Super at Netrokona District, said Hossain was a listed drug peddler who was accused in 13 cases including murder, arms and explosives.

“We picked up Hossain from his home and asked him to take us to his drug stash. He took us to a house in Boromohal area of the town. While we tried entering there, we faced gunfire and Hossain was killed in it,” he told Asia Times.

He suspected that members of Alam’s gang in the drug business were in the house and had fired the bullets. “We couldn’t catch them,” he said when asked what happened to the gang members.

Meanwhile, Bangladeshi daily New Age reported that family members of the two suspected drug peddlers — Momtazur Rahman and Sirajul Islam, both from the southwestern district of Jessore — were picked up by law enforcers last Sunday before their bullet-ridden bodies were later found.

However, Salauddin Sikder, an Additional Police Super at Jessore district, rejected that. He said both Rahman and Islam were renowned drug peddlers and they were killed in a “gunfight” when police went to catch them during a raid.

Activists voice ‘serious concern’

But rights activists have raised serious concerns about the killings, saying legal procedures should have been followed to bring people to book instead of extrajudicial killings.

Bangladeshi rights activist Sultana Kamal said in a press conference on Monday that killing “a drug dealer in this way in the name of crossfire is a clear violation of human rights.” She said any crime should be put under the jurisdiction of the court, but that was not happening.

“People do not want to see such killings. It is a violation of law to use firearms, bought by the people’s money, in extrajudicial killings. What is the country’s judicial system for, if the law enforcers themselves try to serve justice?” she said.

Nur Khan Liton, the former head of Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), one of Bangladesh’s top rights groups, said law enforcers think of solving the drug problem by instilling fear. “This won’t work,” he said.

Liton said extrajudicial killings had already occurred in Bangladesh, but they had not stopped crime. “Also on number of occasions, law enforcers used this on opposition activists against the government. This is an election year. So this drive of law enforcers raises questions.”

Liton urged the government to properly investigate each killing of drug peddlers. “Under no circumstances should extrajudicial killings be accepted.”

However, Asaduzzaman Khan, a senior leader of ruling Awami League who is also Home Affairs Minister, defended the anti-narcotics drive on Monday. He said Prime Minister Hasina had instructed his ministry to take a “zero tolerance” policy against the drug trade and to stop it “at any cost.”

“As per the directive, an anti-narcotics drive has been launched, making a division-wise list of drug dealers based on intelligence information,” he told the media after concerns from different quarters were raised with him.