DHAKA, Bangladesh — The truth behind the 35-year-old’s death depends on whom you ask: Police say he was a drug lord who was killed accidentally in a gunfight during a raid.
Islam is one of 138 men who died in the first two months of a crackdown on Bangladesh’s thriving drug trade, launched on May 3 by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Anti-drug raids have also led to 16,000 arrests and 4,000 convictions, according to the Bangladeshi Ministry of Information, sparking concerns among human rights activists about the large number of fatalities and the swift conviction of suspects.
The government has played down those concerns. “Killing is not the major agenda of these drives,” said Minister of Information Hasanul Haq Inu. He said that deaths occur when suspects become violent during raids and that authorities were investigating every death.
“The government is working within the parameters of the law,” he said.
But the number of deaths and arrests has drawn scrutiny. In one neighborhood in the capital, Dhaka, in late May, officers from the Rapid Action Battalion, an elite police force, arrested 153 people in two hours, and more than half of them were convicted the following day. Among those arrested were barbers, tailors and students, some while lazing in bed. A month later, officers came back with sniffer dogs and AK-47 rifles and carted away 51 people; 18 were convicted.
Opposition party members have accused Hasina’s governing Awami League party of using the crackdown to target opponents ahead of the general election this year.
Asaduzzaman Ripon, special affairs secretary of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), said that at least 10 youth activists of his party had been killed in the drug drives and that other party members had been told to leave their constituencies or face drug charges.
“Many of our workers cannot reside at their homes,” he said. The government has dismissed the BNP’s allegations as unfounded, saying the drives are apolitical and based on intelligence from multiple agencies.
Hasina has been in office since 2009, and critics say her government is increasingly authoritarian. A BNP-led coalition boycotted the most recent election, in 2014, citing unfair conditions and leaving half the seats uncontested. The election was criticized widely in Bangladesh and internationally. Opposition leader and former prime minister Khaleda Zia is in jail in a corruption case.
Concerns have been raised that the latest anti-drug drives are a front for a campaign of extrajudicial killings. International bodies have called on Bangladesh to reconsider how the police operations are being conducted.
“I am gravely concerned that such a large number of people have been killed,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said in a statement.
The crackdown on drugs initially had widespread popular support in Bangladesh. Many here believe a tough stance on drugs is necessary to end the drug trade. But an audio recording published by the Daily Star newspaper’s website on June 1 caused many to question the official narrative.
It purports to be a recording of the killing of Akramul Haque, a ward councilor in the town of Teknaf, whose wife said she had been on the phone with her husband when he was shot. She said she saved a recording on her phone. No gunfight was heard; instead, men can be heard talking before gunfire rings out, followed by the wail of the dying man.
Akramul Haque’s family members refused to comment, saying they no longer felt that speaking out was helping their case. His wife, Ayesha Begum, previously told the Daily Star at a news conference, “Everything was totally staged . . . a planned murder.”
Rapid Action Battalion spokesman Mufti Mahmud Khan dismissed allegations that Haque’s killing was premeditated and has said that Haque’s name was on multiple intelligence lists and that he was a known drug dealer.
Addiction and trafficking have long afflicted this poor, predominantly Muslim country, where the rise of drug use is blamed on Western influences and a lack of financial opportunities for young people.
Drugs became a nationwide concern in 2013, when a 17-year-old drug user named Oishee Rahman sedated her parents and fatally stabbed them after they tried to prevent her from using yaba, a methamphetamine usually sold in pill form. The drug is thought to be widely available in Bangladesh. Rahman is serving a life sentence.
The case sparked calls to root out the country’s drug problem. In the years since, Bangladesh’s intelligence agencies prepared lists of drug dealers, said Inu, the information minister.
“After a lot of homework, a war against the drug dealers was declared by the government,” he said. “We are pursuing a zero-tolerance policy towards drugs.”
The numbers of daily reported deaths of accused drug dealers in gunfights with police has dropped in the past few weeks. But the government has said it will press on with eliminating drugs from Bangladesh.
“Drugs destroy a country, a nation and a family,” Hasina told Parliament in June. “We will continue the drive, no matter who says what.”
Ahmed Shatil Alam contributed to this report.