Bangladesh’s Deadly War on Drugs
While the death penalty for drugs has existed in Bangladesh for decades, it has rarely been used. This could change dramatically if Parliament approves a government bill that could subject people who use drugs and low-level dealers to the ultimate punishment.
LONDON – The audio quality is poor and the sound of gunshots muffled, but the agony in Ekramul Haque’s voice is unmistakable. On May 26, while speaking with his family by phone, Haque, an elected official in southern Bangladesh, was gunned down by police in an apparent extrajudicial killing.
Bangladeshi authorities insist Haque was a drug dealer who died in an exchange of gunfire, but the audio evidence – captured by his wife as she listened to her husband die – suggests that the officers involved killed him and then planted drugs at the scene. The recording casts a disturbing light on Bangladesh’s new drug-control strategy.
Since May, when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina revamped her government’s war on drugs, an estimated 25,000 people have been arbitrarily imprisoned, and at least 200 have died in alleged shootouts. The parallels to President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal drug crackdown in the Philippines are chilling. There, human rights are routinely violated and more than 20,000 people have been slaughtered since 2016. While Duterte’s campaign has drawn international condemnation, Hasina’s purge has been subject to less scrutiny.
The relative lack of international criticism seems to have emboldened the government to act even more ruthlessly. In early October, the authorities doubled down by proposing a draft law, which has now been submitted to Parliament, to expand the use of capital punishment for drug offenses. Under the proposal, possession of more than five grams of “yaba” – a methamphetamine-based drug targeted by the government’s crackdown – could be punishable by death.
While the death penalty for drugs has existed in Bangladesh for decades, it has rarely been used. This could change dramatically if Parliament approves the government’s bill. The ferocity of the authorities’ anti-drug campaign, together with the extremely low threshold for yaba possession, means that even people who use drugs and low-level dealers could face execution.
Despite what governments claim, the death penalty for drug offenses does not target kingpins. It is the poor and the most vulnerable who suffer. This would certainly be the case in Bangladesh, where some Rohingya refugees – who have fled horrific persecution in neighboring Myanmar – rely on the drug trade for economic survival.
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Moreover, there is simply no evidence that the death penalty for drug use lowers rates of consumption or trafficking. Almost 4,000 people have been executed for drug offenses in the past decade, and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime admits that the drug market is still booming. Death penalty laws are little more than grotesque grandstanding by governments seeking to appear “tough” on drugs while blindly ignoring the facts.
Bangladesh’s legislation move would move the country to the extreme fringe of the international community and buck the global trend toward abolishing capital punishment. According to Harm Reduction International’s research, of the 33 countries that retain the death penalty for drug offenses, only a handful – mainly Saudi Arabia and China – actually carry out executions. Most other countries have changed tack.
For example, drug-related executions in Iran fell dramatically after judicial reforms late last year (although the country still applies the death penalty for other offenses). Meanwhile, Malaysia’s cabinet is considering a bill to abolish the death penalty for all crimes. If it passes, the measure would commute the sentences of the 1,267 people currently on death row in the country, including 900 convicted of drug-related crimes.
Unfortunately, Bangladesh is not alone in favoring extreme measures. Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena recently said that his country would end a 42-year moratorium on executions and begin killing people convicted of drug crimes. While it is unclear if Sirisena will follow through, his threat is part of a worrying trend among populists who view the death penalty as a panacea for the drug trade. In a rambling speech earlier this year, US President Donald Trump suggested that he, too, supports such a policy.
The European Union has urged Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to reconsider their strategies, arguing that “the death penalty doesn’t act as a deterrent to crime, and any error of judgment is impossible to correct.” These are wise words, and countries everywhere – especially EU member states – must do more to reinforce this view.
Bangladesh’s Parliament still has an opportunity to reject the draft law and move the country toward a more effective drug-control policy. Enacting the death penalty would only exacerbate an already deteriorating human-rights situation. Around the world, countries are recognizing that executions, much less extrajudicial killings, have no effect on the drug trade. Bangladesh must recognize this, too.