(New York) – The Bangladesh government should thoroughly investigate the murder of a madrassa student and fairly prosecute all those responsible, Human Rights Watch said. The murder of Nusrat Jahan Rafi, who was killed after she filed a complaint of attempted rape, should spur the authorities to take concerted action to combat sexual violence in the country.
The police said that Nusrat Jahan Rafi, 18, was tricked into going to the rooftop of a cyclone shelter at her madrassa in Feni on April 6, 2019, where at least four people grabbed her, doused her in kerosene, and lit her on fire. The attack came after she refused to back down from pursuing her March 27 complaint of attempted rape against the madrassa principal, Siraj-Ud-Daula. She died from burns covering 80 percent of her body on April 10. The attack led to nationwide protests calling on the government to reform and enforce Bangladeshi laws and practices concerning sexual assault.
“The horrifying murder of a brave woman who sought justice shows how badly the Bangladesh government has failed victims of sexual assault,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Nusrat Jahan Rafi’s death highlights the need for the Bangladesh government to take survivors of sexual assault seriously and ensure that they can safely seek a legal remedy and be protected from retaliation.”
A video taken on March 27 while Nusrat Jahan Rafi reported the assault shows the police officer in charge registering her complaint but telling her that the incident was “not a big deal.” Subsequently, supporters of the accused pressured her to withdraw her complaint. The woman’s family told the media that before the attack they received death threats telling them to drop the case. But she was determined to seek justice. Her brother said that after she was attacked on April 6, Nusrat Jahan Rafi told her family that the assailants had demanded that she withdraw her case against the principal, and when she refused, they set her on fire.
The police have arrested 8 of the 13 people accused of taking part in the murder. Two have confessed, according to the police, that the murder was carried out at the direction of the principal, who remains in custody over Nusrat Jahan Rafi’s allegations.
Although Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has vowed to bring those responsible for the killing to justice, the government’s record on prosecuting sexual violence cases is extremely poor. The murder occurred around the fourth anniversary of a case of mass sexual harassment of at least 20 women during Bengali New Year celebrations at Dhaka University on April 14, 2015. In the four years since, there has been little progress in the court case.
On April 15, 2019, a woman was stabbed and killed as she resisted a rape attempt in Chattogram district. The Dhaka Tribune reported at least eight rapes across Bangladesh over April 14 and April 15. In a recent travel advisory, the United States warned its citizens that “violent crime, such as armed robbery, assault, and rape, is widespread” in Bangladesh. According to Ain O Salish Kendra, a Bangladeshi human rights organization, there were over 700 cases of rape reported in 2018. The actual numbers are likely higher given the enormous stigma associated with reporting sexual assault.
Victims are often discouraged from seeking a legal remedy because of long court cases, humiliation and victim blaming at police stations and hospitals, pressure from public officials and the accused to drop cases, and harassment during defense questioning in court.
Lawyers and rights groups have repeatedly called for repeal of section 155(4) of the Evidence Act 1872, which states that “when a man is prosecuted for rape or an attempt to ravish, it may be shown that the prosecutrix was of generally immoral character.” This provision encourages defense lawyers to denigrate the reputation of women if they pursue criminal charges, a clear disincentive to victims’ stepping forward.
These problems are compounded because Bangladesh has no witness protection law, meaning that victims pursuing a legal remedy and those willing to testify on their behalf risk serious threats, harassment, and even death. A Witness Protection Act was drafted by the Bangladesh Law Commission in 2006, but it has yet to be passed into law.
Even when survivors file a complaint, according to a recent study by Naripokkho, a Bangladesh women’s rights organization, conviction is very unlikely. Conviction rates in rape cases have actually dropped, from 0.5 percent in 2016 to 0.3 percent in 2018.
Bangladesh also does not have a comprehensive law governing sexual harassment at work and educational institutions. In 2009, the High Court issued a judgment providing detailed guidelines governing sexual harassment in all workplaces and educational institutions. As stipulated by the guidelines, all workplaces and educational institutions should have dedicated committees in place tasked with preventing and responding to sexual harassment complaints. The government should systematically monitor the implementation of these guidelines and finalize a draft bill on sexual harassment.
In 2018, the Bangladesh High Court ruled that police had delayed in recording the complaint of a woman who was gang-raped on a microbus in Dhaka in 2015, and issued guidelines for handling rape cases. These included taking the victim’s statement in the presence of a social worker; designating female officers at police stations to receive complaints; providing support for victims with disabilities; and criminalizing police failure to register a case without sufficient cause. These recommendations should be carried out and legally enforced, Human Rights Watch said.
“Nusrat Jahan Rafi’s cruel death is a sobering reminder of the pervasive risk of sexual violence that is faced by Bangladeshi women and girls,” Ganguly said. “The government should ensure justice for her family, urgently put legal protections in place to prevent sexual assault, and provide effective protections to survivors.”