On June 4, Chandran Vithushan, a young man in Sri Lanka, was buried by his family. He had been arrested two days earlier, on suspicion of selling drugs. Police told his family that he fell ill while in custody at the police station that night, and died the following morning after being brought to the hospital.
Police and medical officials say that he died after swallowing packets of “ice” (methamphetamine), that burst in his body and asphyxiated him. But his family rejects that explanation, saying that police violence killed him.
“These people are lying,” his sister, Caroline Chandran, told local media. “Justice should be rendered to my elder brother. I will not stop until then. I saw my brother being beaten to death. He was lifted and smashed on the floor and on the wall. Even the wall has cracked. Do they have that much power?”
“We have seen cases of custodial deaths, especially in the last year,” Ambika Satkunanathan told Filter. Satkunanathan served as a commissioner on Sri Lanka’s independent Human Rights Commission from 2015-2020. During her tenure, she oversaw complaints of violence and torture in the nation’s prisons and by police. She has more recently documented a series of deaths in police custody between June 2020-2021.
“We see in prisons that if people have drug or alcohol dependency and suffer withdrawal symptoms behind bars, other prisoners as well as guards will use violence to control them—often because they have no clue what else to do. There are instances where this has led to death.”
On June 26, activists the world over will mark the eighth annual Support. Don’t Punish Global Day of Action. People interested in learning more about the international drug war—and how to end it—can participate in a series of forums, workshops, protests and other events, meet like-minded folks, and bring new knowledge to their communities.
“The campaign seeks to put harm reduction on the political agenda by strengthening the mobilization capacity of communities targeted by the ‘war on drugs’ and their allies,” states the campaign’s website “…And so, every year, an increasing number of activists in dozens of cities all over the world join this unique and multifaceted show of force for reform and harm reduction.”
The Global Day of Action intentionally falls on the same day as the United Nations’ International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. The UN occasion has traditionally been used by governments and organizations to showcase their “achievements” in enforcing prohibition, and to emphasize the dangers of illegal drugs, through events like this conference in Dubai.
Support. Don’t Punish, then, is an attempt to reclaim the day in the name of peace for all people who use drugs. We don’t have to look far to understand why it’s needed.
The drug war has long been a truly international phenomenon. The United States has been the key global driver of punitive drug policies and their enforcement. There are signs, however, that this dynamic may slowly be changing.
In the US, even as mass arrests, incarceration and many other racist human rights abuses in the name of drug enforcement continue, momentum seems to be gathering for progress. More and more jurisdictions have legalized cannabis and decriminalized other drugs, and legislation to decriminalize all drugs has been introduced to Congress for the first time. But in many countries, the deadly fire ignited by the US rages unabated.
Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in a key US ally in the western Pacific: the Philippines. President Rodrigo Duterte has escalated a murderous drug war in the five years since he was elected. Of course, Duterte’s campaign, like similar ones worldwide, is a war not on drugs, but on people.
As Human Rights Watch research has shown, soldiers, police and vigilantes often murder people with little reason to believe they are involved in the drug trade—not that such evidence would be any justification. People may be targeted for “drug war” killings over personal or political disputes. And rather than targeting “kingpins” or large organizations that sell drugs, police and other assailants attack people who use drugs or sell in small quantities in the country’s poorest regions. Duterte’s campaign, then, amounts to a state-sanctioned war of control against the most vulnerable Filipinos.
Because officers are compensated financially for their efforts—and required to maintain lists of drug suspects in their regions—they are incentivized to maintain the cycle of violence. Amnesty International has also detailed how police have planted evidence at crime scenes, fabricated official reports, and stolen possessions from victims’ homes.
Duterte’s actions, and the apparent political benefit they have brought him, seem to have inspired a number of other national leaders.
It is difficult to gauge the full impact of drug-war violence in the Philippines. Official government data on the number of killings by police and soldiers range between 6,100 and 8,600, though reporting is unreliable and doesn’t account for the many people killed by vigilantes and unknown gunmen. Advocates estimate the true number of dead to be as high as 27,000.
It is possible that Duterte could face some degree of accountability. On June 14, the soon-retiring prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Fatou Bensouda, announced the ICC is seeking authorization for a full investigation into crimes of war committed by Duterte’s government during its anti-drug campaign. Yet the Philippines is not a member of the ICC, so it remains to be seen if and how such an investigation would unfold.
The devastating impact of Duterte’s campaign is not limited to his own country. His actions, and the apparent political benefit they have brought him—polls suggest that he is popular domestically—seem to have inspired a number of other national leaders.
A number of Asian governments have taken Duterte’s cue. In Indonesia and Bangladesh, elected leaders are exploiting popular fear of drugs to shore up their own political support. This is also the case in Sri Lanka, where Chandran Vithushan was one of the latest victims.
In June 2019, then-Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena reinstated the death penalty after 43 years of its use being banned in the country. Sirisena immediately signed the death warrants of four people serving prison sentences for drug convictions.
A few months prior, Sirisena had visited Duterte. At a state banquet in Manila, Sirisena called Duterte’s violent campaign an “example to the whole world” and pledged to take similar action to combat drug trafficking in Sri Lanka. Duterte later praised Sirisena’s telling him that he would “kill the bastards.”
The specters of terrorism and war loom large in the Sri Lanka public consciousness, which the government exploits in its anti-drug campaign. In 1983, the insurgent Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) led an armed uprising against the national government for 26 years, until its military defeat in 2009. In March 2019, Sri Lankan military commander General M. Senanayake outlined a systematic effort to target drug traffickers and users. The army and law enforcement agencies would work together to defeat drugs, “identical to how we finished off LTTE terrorism 10 years ago,” he said.
Sirisena has also linked terrorism and drugs. After a series of deadly terrorist bombings in the capital city of Colombo in April 2019, Sirisena alleged, without evidence, that international drug dealers were responsible, and that they were aiming to discredit his presidency.
“The use of violence is systemic in our prisons and police departments.”
However, for all the bluster that comes from the president’s office and generals, the greatest threat for many drug users in Sri Lanka is simply walking down the street. Ambika Satkunanathan has written that often, the people targeted by police are the very poorest and most vulnerable in the country—those who live in impoverished areas on the edges of cities, or have no housing. It’s a familiar pattern.
“The use of violence is systemic in our prisons and police departments—this is across the board for vulnerable populations including LGBTQ persons and ethnic minorities, not just drug users,” Satkunanathan told Filter.
In Sri Lanka, media reporting helps spread political messaging that stigmatizes drug users and paints them as dangerous criminals. This in turn feeds into public fears about drugs and ensures that nothing changes.
“If there is a fatal shootout, there is no public outrage or sympathy,” Satkunanathan said. “Just last month we had two incidents where people who were involved in drug trafficking were in police custody and were allegedly shot. There was the usual story of, ‘They tried to attack us, they tried to escape, and we killed them.’”
There is also no drug safety or harm reduction work of any significant scale in Sri Lanka. Substance use disorder “treatment” that does exist is often mandatory or coerced—courts will offer people with drug charges the choice between that or jail.
“Because of the stigma attached to drugs, it is hard to even find people who work on this issue, let alone people who will speak up publicly because they are afraid,” Satkunanathan said. “People also feel, ‘If we try this is pointless, we’re never getting anywhere, so we don’t want to work on this.’”
Despite such severe challengs, there are some grounds for hope in Sri Lanka. Increasing internet use, Satkunanathan pointed out, means that more people are sharing information and ideas that aren’t found in traditional media. “Among younger people and in social media, there is an understanding that even if you are a drug trafficker, doesn’t mean you should be killed or tortured.”
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo of Indonesia is another who was quick to follow Duterte’s example. In 2017 he declared drugs and their distribution “our number one problem.” Jokowi’s government oversaw the executions of 18 people for drug trafficking convictions between 2014 and 2017.
Since 2017, police in Indonesia have also engaged in an increasingly violent campaign of extrajudicial killings related to drug offenses. That year, police fatally shot 79 people suspected of drug-law violations—a dramatic rise compared to Jokowi’s first full year in office, when 10 people were killed in such circumstances. Jokowi has offered Duterte-like encouragement for this violence, telling police, “[if suspects] resist a little bit, just shoot them immediately.”
Meanwhile in Bangladesh, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina launched an aggressive crackdown against drug trafficking in May 2018. The campaign is intended to target methamphetamine use in the country, known locally as ya ba. The government has linked the drug to the humanitarian crisis affecting the Rhohingya people in neighboring Myanmar, blaming the influx of 750,000 Rohingya refugees for bringing the drug into Bangladesh.
In the first year that Hasina announced the campaign, 466 people were killed in anti-drug enforcement efforts—a death toll triple the number of the year prior. Amnesty International in 2019 described a pattern similar to that seen in the Philippines—people suspected of drug-law violations are visited by police, or simply disappear. When families find the victims’ bodies later, police claim they died in gunfights.
The brutal patterns we see repeated in country after country—including many others besides those described in this article, from Brazil to Russia—point back to the need for international activism against the large-scale persecution and suffering of the global drug war.
Last year, even at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, activists gathered in 239 cities in 90 countries for Support. Don’t Punish 2020. Below is a brief list of just a few of the events taking place this time around. More information is available at the Support. Don’t Punish website.
* On July 2, Harm Reduction International, the Intenational Drug Policy Consortium, INPUD and others are cosponsoring a side event at the UN Human Rights Council to discuss arbitrary detention in the context of drug policies. Ambika Satkunanathan will speak at the event, and discuss the launch of an upcoming report she wrote on the issue.
* Melbourne, Australia: A screening of The United States vs. Billie Holiday will present the real-life story of how the pioneering African American jazz vocalist was targeted and persecuted by Harry Anslinger, a top federal law enforcement agent who played a key role in making marijuana illegal. The screening will include a live video conversation with author Johann Hari, from whose book, Chasing the Scream, the Holiday film is adapted. Hari is joined by Jenny Valentish, author of Women of Substances: A Journey Into Addiction and Treatment and a Filter contributor, who will discuss challenges faced by women who use drugs.
* Brussels, Belgium: On June 26, the city will host numerous educational events including live DJ sets, photo exhibitions, documentary film screenings, and even family games to help educate folks about substance use disorders and hepatitis C.
* Canada: This all-virtual series includes a roundtable discussion on June 24, and two online presentations. The programming is suited for young people and students interested in ending the drug war—and who want to connect with like-minded young activists. It is available in English and French, courtesy of Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Paradigma and Stimulus Connect.
* Costa Rica: Until July 7, Latin Americans for Sensible Drug Policy is hosting a series of virtual discussions about women who use drugs, cannabis home-growing and more. Details are available on the group’s Facebook page.
* French Guyana: Guyanese advocates will hold a virtual discussion about drug policy reform efforts in France, and how to decriminalize all drugs in French Guyana.
* Mombassa, Kenya: Advocates will present and discuss the challenges facing women who use drugs.
* Warsaw, Poland: Anti-drug war advocates have been engaging Polish residents online and in-person all month to support decriminalizing all drugs, legalizing medical marijuana, and allowing research of psychedelics for therapeutic use. The campaign culminates in a demonstration on June 25 in Warsaw. The event is organized by the Polish Drug Policy Network and Polish Psychedelic Society.
* Geneva Switzerland: Wherever you are, you can tune in virtually to a conversation with Dr. Carl Hart, the Columbia University psychologist and neuroscientist, hosted by the Graduate Institute of Geneva. Dr. Hart will discuss the themes of his newest book Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear.