Bangladesh defends drug war as murder claims surface

The family of Akramul Haque dispute police claims that he was a drug dealer killed in a shootout
AFP

Cox’s Bazar (Bangladesh) (AFP) – Bangladesh says Akramul Haque was a meth kingpin who died after opening fire at police, one of 130 accused dealers killed in murky late-night shootouts in an increasingly bloody war on drugs.

But his wife has gone public with tapes that she says prove her husband was murdered in a set-up, causing a sensation in Bangladesh as the police crackdown faces its first real scrutiny.

Ayesha Begum says the phone conversations she recorded with Haque on the night he died contradict the official narrative — that he was armed and shot at police, who returned fire in self-defence.

“They killed him in cold blood,” Begum told AFP from Teknaf in southeast Bangladesh, where her husband, a local councillor, was gunned down on May 27.

“They said it was a shootout. But his hands were tied when he was killed. Someone was told to untie his hands after he was shot,” she said, describing what she heard over the phone.

AFP has listened to the audio but cannot independently verify that the voices belong to Haque, his wife and young daughter.

Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan said police had copies of the recordings and were investigating, but would not elaborate.

Rights groups say that if true, the chilling tapes — which have gone viral in Bangladesh — are proof that police have committed extrajudicial killings in the campaign that began on May 15 and has also seen 15,000 people arrested.

The recordings have cast doubt on what many Bangladeshis considered a legitimate effort to stamp out drugs, most notably “yaba”, a cheap and hugely popular methamphetamine pill.

There have been calls for an immediate inquiry, with some drawing parallels  to the Philippines, where the rule of law has been eroded as thousands of bodies have piled up from a deadly drug war.

– ‘Terrorising the people’ –

A letter co-signed by 10 high-profile Bangladeshis, including independence heroes and celebrated writers, said the allegations were “unimaginable in any democratic state and society”.

“One such incident is enough to question the entire campaign and terrorise the people,” the widely published letter said.

Police say all the people killed so far were wanted drug kingpins, and all died in late-night gang wars or shootouts with police. No officers have been seriously injured. 

Haque was no different, they say.

They allege he was a “top godfather” of the yaba trade in Teknaf, a key transit town for the little red pills crossing the border from labs in Myanmar.

As is the case with almost all the other shootouts, police say they found drugs and weapons on his body — in Haque’s case 10,000 yaba tablets, two guns and rounds of live ammunition.

But Haque’s family says the father of two was innocent.

“If he were a yaba dealer, we would have many properties. Yet we struggle to pay our daughters’ school fees,” his wife Begum told AFP.

She released four recordings to the media on May 31. Haque speaks to his daughter briefly in the first three, but in the fourth he says nothing into the phone as the tape rolls.

Sometime later, gunshots ring out and Begum says her husband can be heard moaning. Another man is then heard discussing how to best plant loaded guns, bullets and yaba at the scene.

– Staged killings? –

Rights groups say Bangladesh’s security forces have a record of staging executions and Haque’s alleged murder fits a pattern.

“We have documented in the past, that all too often they engage in extrajudicial killings and then make up stories of these deaths in an armed exchange or in crossfire,” said Human Rights Watch South Asia director Meenakshi Ganguly.

Local rights activist Nur Khan Liton said Haque’s case was not the first one bearing the hallmarks of a set-up.

“Some families said the victims were arrested first… and then killed in what appeared to be staged gun battles,” he told AFP.

The main opposition party — whose leader was jailed this year ahead of a general election — says the killings have a political angle, with five of their supporters gunned down so far.  

“They are murdering innocent people to create a climate of fear, so nobody can hold protests against the government,” said Bangladesh Nationalist Party spokesman Rizvi Ahmed.

The government estimates 400 million yaba tablets hit the streets in 2017, despite seizures numbering in the tens of millions of pills.

The drugs crisis has expanded beyond urban areas, authorities say, with addicts found in rural areas of the Muslim-majority country.

Even more pills are expected to flood the market this year after Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar for Bangladesh were employed as drug mules, police say.

The government has vowed to eradicate the “menace” with the same aggression it used to choke homegrown Islamic extremism.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has defiantly stated that “no (drug) godfather will be spared”.

“I can say this because whenever I deal with something, I use an iron fist,” she said.

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