By Clare Baldwin and Ruma Paul
DHAKA (Reuters) – Bangladesh police arrested Riazul Islam while walking home from his in-laws home , At 3:15, he was shot dead on a sandy field beside a series of railroad tracks north of Dhaka.
The police say he was killed in a shootout with other drug traffickers, and they found 20 kg of marijuana on the site. His parents say the officials extorted money from them and then killed him.
"I knew my son was in police custody, and suddenly my son was dead, I could not believe it, the police took money and they still killed him," his mother Rina Begum said.
Bangladesh is the newest frontline on state-backed drug raids in Asia, and Islam is one of more than 200 people shot dead by police in Bangladesh since May when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced the campaign.
Critics say the crackdown reflects Hasina's increasingly authoritarian reign before a general election due by December. This was also reflected in the response to recent student demonstrations of deaths, including the use of rubber bullets and the arrest of a prominent photographer.
Hasina emphasized that the police and intelligence services are now fighting the drug problem the same way they have encountered violent extremism in recent years.
Such campaigns may be popular with voters, as the bloody drug war by President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines has shown.
Hasina's office did not respond to questions about whether the pre-election drug campaign was a populist trick or a means to scare the opposition.
MOUNTING THE DEATH OF DEATH
The bodies appeared quickly after Hasina's Annunciation. And just as in the Philippines, the murders seemed to follow a script: suspects died in "shootings," typically at night, and weapons and drugs were found nearby.
More than a third of the 211 killings recorded by the Dhaka-based human rights group Odhikar since mid-May have arrested the suspects before they were murdered.
Police are overseen by Interior Minister Asaduzzaman Khan, who denied that the police were executing suspects.
"Our law enforcement officers are not killing, they are not executing anybody, it's impossible, if they do, they'll be fired right now," he told Reuters. "It is not a lawless land."
After Islam was arrested, police reportedly took the neighborhood's "biggest terror" to the field next to the train tracks to attack and arrest other drug traffickers. The other traders "sensed" the presence of the officers and began firing indiscriminately and "to save lives and state property," the officers fired back.
"Roni [Islam] was shot and fell down, he died on the spot," the report says, saying two officers were wounded.
The autopsy report of Islam read to a Reuters Hospital official found that a single bullet near his left ear penetrated his head and exited near his right. Each officer was treated for one of his hands after records at another hospital because of minor areas of tenderness and swelling.
None of the six witnesses in the police report saw Islam die, they told Reuters.
One of the six artisans, Mohammad Bappy, who lives on the edge of the field where Islam was shot, took photos of the dead body of Islam. One of the pictures shows blood on the floor under the head of Islam.
"There was no weapon," he said. "If there had been a shootout, we would have heard a lot of shots from two sides, that did not happen."
Kamal Hossain, officer responsible for the operation, said drug use leads to crime and arrests do not work.
"They come on bail and they do the same, selling and using drugs," he said. "Every drug dealer should be killed, then drugs can be controlled."
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, US Ambassador to Bangladesh and the European Union have all expressed concern over the killing of drug suspects in Bangladesh.
After a government official in the southern city of Teknaf was shot dead by police from the Rapid Reaction Battalion in May, the state-sponsored National Human Rights Commission sent a letter to the Ministry of Police to remind them of human rights.
But Hasina pushed on.
"Drugs destroy a country, a nation and a family," she told parliament in June. "We will continue the journey, no matter who says what."
Most of the murders occurred in May, when there were 129 when the campaign began, but then fell to 38 in June, before rising to 44 in July.
Drugs have long been a concern of the Government of Bangladesh, which prohibits the consumption of alcohol by Muslims, who make up the vast majority of the population.
But it is not clear how much drug use has increased or how many people are using drugs. Asked for numbers, Bangladesh's deputy intelligence chief said there was none.
"We have no government statistics or non-state statistics on users," Nazrul Islam Sikder said, adding, "But we estimate 7 to 8 million."
Drug control drug data suggest that drug trafficking has grown, but much of the increase occurred three years ago, long before Hasina launched the raid. The data show a dramatic increase in methamphetamine or "Yaba" pills seizures starting in 2015.
No one believes the official reports of the killings, said Rashid Alam, a 50-year-old manager of a textile factory near the field of Islam was shot, but he is more concerned about the scourge of drug use for the communities.
"We understand he is a drug dealer and the police shot him," he said. "That kind of death is okay, good job, really."
Hasina's critics say the crackdown should show voters that they are responding to popular concerns and are afraid of political opponents before the elections. According to media reports, some of those killed were activists of the opposition Bangladesh National Party.
For Ashrafuzzaman Zaman, liaison officer of the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission, the policy of fighting drugs is clear.
"They kill 200 people and you make 150 million people afraid: You can be one of them today or tomorrow, that's the message the government gives to people," he said.
Interior Minister Khan denied that the campaign was a cover to address opposition politicians and said that no drug addict is treated differently from another.
"His identity is just a criminal," he said. "Even if he has a connection to the governing party, he will not be spared."
(Additional coverage by Holly Chik in Hong Kong and Serajul Quadir in DHAKA, edited by John Chalmers and Martin Howell)