Institutional Impunity: No justice for rape victims once the outrage is finished

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L A W  &  S O C I E T Y – B A N G L A D E S H

Miftahul Zannat

After 5 years of waiting for justice, right now it seems like any director can pick up the Tonu rape-murder incident and make a film about it. As cruel as it is, “No one Killed Tonu” might be a fitting title, inspired by the very revered Bollywood movie No one Killed Jessica. No one killed Tonu is exactly what the investigators, who have been changed 4 times in the last 5 years, have to say about the rape and murder case. They claim that although DNA samples found on Tonu’s clothes were collected, they didn’t match with any suspect of the case. 

Tonu’s parents, however, are still waiting in the hope that one day they’ll get to know who killed their daughter and witness them being punished. “Everyone forgot my daughter, but how will I forget her, being a mother,” said Anwara Begum as five years have passed since the murder of her daughter, yet the killers could not be identified, nor has the investigation of the incident made any progress.

When the rape protests started in October 2020, a feeling of hope bloomed amidst the rage that Bangladesh was finally discussing the misogyny so prevalent both in our system and society, that may lead to ensuring justice for rape victims in a country where marital rape is still legal and male rape is not recognised. However, the feeling of hope seems ill-formed as even after the protests, any real or effective progress has still to be made. 

In six administrative districts of Bangladesh from 2011 to 2018, the courts brought conviction in just 5 out of 4,372 rape cases, as reported by Naripokkho. This indicates the extremely embedded inaction and institutional impunity all over the country.  

While multiple rape cases which came under the limelight in the past five years were protested, sparking significant outrage, the rapists were barely brought under justice.

The list of cases mentioned below highlight how ineffective the protests and rape law reforms have been in ensuring actual justice for victims. 

Sohagi Jahan Tonu

Tonu was raped and murdered in March 2016 in Comilla’s cantonment area. While numerous protests and rallies were held demanding justice for her, 5 years into the case and the perpetrators have still to be identified and arrested. However, no hope remains as an article published by The Daily Star in 2018 revealed that the CID had stopped answering calls from Tonu’s parents. The lead investigator claimed that despite matching DNA found on her body with 20 suspects from the area, they were still unable to find a match. “We have been investigating the case. We are yet to make any progress,” said the chief of PBI, Deputy Inspector General Banaj Kumar Majumder.

The Noakhali Housewife Rape Case

The accused Delowar, a member of Jubo League (Awami League’s youth wing), raped the housewife from Noakhali three times. The third time, in September 2020, five men from a criminal gang named Delowar Bahini stripped, tortured, and raped the woman and filmed the crime. Despite Delowar raping her multiple times previously, the victim in the case was only able to file her case 32 days after the video went viral, as the union official she went to refused to take any action. Although the perpetrators were arrested, the case filed failed to include the name of the instigator, Delowar Hossain. No further updates on the case have been found after the report of the arrests.

“Nobody complained to the police because he was truly someone to be afraid of. And, so he became this person with impunity,” said a 70-year-old man from Joykrishnapur village on condition of anonymity.

Nur Nahar

Nur Nahar was married off to Rajib Khan, a 35-year-old man when she was just 14-year-old. Within 34 days of getting married, she died from haemorrhaging to death. She died due to not receiving proper treatment after she started bleeding vaginally as Rajib had forced sexual intercourse with her on the night of their wedding. Instead of getting her immediate treatment from a hospital, her mother-in-law gave her medicine from a kobiraj and by the time she was taken to a hospital, it was too late. While her grandfather filed a case against Rajib, whether or not he was actually convicted remains uncertain. It bears mentioning that what Rajib did is legal in our country since marital rape of wives above the age of 13 is excluded from section 375 of the Penal Code 1860, which defines rape. In addition, marital rape is only punishable under section 376 if the girl is under the age of 12 — the punishment being two years of jail or just a fine.

Aurna Amin

Aurna Amin, an O Level student from Dhaka, bled to death after Fardin Dihan raped her. Initially, three of Dihan’s friends were also arrested, but they were quickly granted bail. Aurna’s case also sparked countless protests. However, it also led to mass victim-blaming from many. Although Fardin was arrested and a case was filed against him by Aurna’s parents, two court-hearings were cancelled and the officials are yet to finish their investigation, according to the victim’s family. 

Mossarat Jahan Munia

Munia was found dead in her apartment in April 2021. After the initial report, Bashundhara MD, Sobhan Anvir, was identified as the cause behind her suicide. While DNA evidence was found on Munia’s body, the police mentioned they were not going to match the evidence with samples from Anvir as it was “irrelevant” to the probe report. All the while, the accused didn’t have to go through any interrogation. Later on, police submitted the investigation clearing Anvir from all accusations. Finally, on 6 September, the victim’s sister has filed a case against Anvir along with 8 others for rape and murder. It still remains uncertain whether or not Anvir is going to be convicted for the crime he has committed.

Rapists protected by structural and political immunity 

All these cases showed that even amidst the outcry and the outrage, the victims are still not granted the justice they deserve. And, the rapists not getting convicted mostly result from them being connected to the ruling party or them being people in power. With more than two-thirds of the women in Bangladesh suffering from intimate-partner violence, almost 72% of them never tell anybody and less than 3% take legal action. Even among those who do seek legal action, a very small percentage ever see their abuser convicted, an HRW report suggests. 

Among the numerous reasons why prosecutors do not get convictions are as follows: Political intervention, a slow trial system, a corrupt administration. Illegitimate political intervention backs up the rapists by preventing them from being held accountable. Convicts’ ability to walk scot-free is ensured by their political affiliation which affirms the prevalent corruption in the PA sector, and the absence of state’s separated roles between politics and administration to ensure its effectiveness. 

“A rape victim does not know where to go and what to do. If we can create a system where a victim can visit the police station first, and the authorities complete the rest of the procedure — that would help in breaking the silence of victims,” said Dr Ayesha Afroz Chowdhury, deputy programme manager of the health and family welfare ministry in the ‘National dialogue on action against sexual violence’ programme. 

Bangladesh being a chronically patriarchal country where female subjugation continues to exist, rape is used as a tool to exert power on women to preserve social control. Besides, commoners’ conservative ideals are reinforced by community leaders and religious clerics as the masses are highly sensitive and welcoming towards any preaching that is said by religious clerics, even when it perpetuates stereotypes. This is one of the reasons why the nation, on a large scale, puts the blame on the victims in terms of sexual violence. This culture of victim-blaming manifests hegemonic masculinity and misogynistic treatment towards women, hindering the victims from not filing lawsuits or seeking justice.

“Abuse of power and absence of accountability of the state creates misogyny, and trivialising sexual assault can put the men in a supreme state. That is why a patriarchal society can easily raise questions about a victim’s dress, mental state, and motives for bringing on a rape incident instead of identifying rape as a criminal offence,” according to Khushi Kabir, Secretary of the NGO Nijera Kori.

Due to the stigma attached and the desire to protect the “family honour”, families of rape survivors wish to pursue a quick, economic, and discrete remedy. This condition is further aggravated by the complex and slow trial system, for which court cases take years to conclude and entail a lot of costs (even when legal aid is received) and some degree of publicity — causing many cases to go unreported. 

“The community leaders, even when uninterested in protecting the rapist involved, consider each incident of rape as an opportunity to make money as mediators of the shalish (since they receive a sizeable portion of the settlement amount) and therefore have a clear financial interest in keeping the cases out of court. Hence shalish or out-of-court settlement through informal community mediation becomes particularly operative in rape cases as it provides a convenient alternative to litigation for all parties involved,” explained BLAST research specialist Taqbir Huda in an article on why rape cases stay out of court. 

Did death penalty prove to be a solution to rape?

According to Ain o Shalish Kendra, 1627 rape cases were reported in 2020.

Last year on 12  October, the government amended the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act to include the death penalty for rapists even when the amendment was much contested. No demands by the rape law reform coalition were taken into consideration then. While the death penalty was the quickest law passed on rape, it led to no real improvements as the law only serves to give rapists more reasons to kill victims. It could be considered that in order to control the public outrage against the ineffective judicial system and systemic violence against women, the death penalty was declared as the highest punishment as a deterrent against rape. Where in fact, the judicial infrastructure has failed to make convictions in rape cases and is not sensitised enough to assist the survivors in seeking justice.

From October 2020 to December 2020, the Ain o Shalish Kendra reported that approximately 278 women were raped, proving the ineffectiveness of the protests and the inclusion of death penalty, especially in rural area where law enforcement is reportedly slow in terms of case progressions, and chances of political meddling by demagogues claiming that the perpetrator(s) are their nurtured hooligans or acquaintances is reportedly high. 

Do protests bring about any changes to the feeble infrastructure and justice system? 

In the midst of the anti-rape protests, the Rape Law Reform Coalition — consisting of 17 member organisations such as BLAST and Naripokkho — presented a 10-point demand to ensure and seek systemic and structural changes in order to allow victims to seek the justice they have a right to. However, in one year, only one of the demands has been fulfilled. 

As such, the decision to remove Section 155(4) of the Evidence Act 1872 on 2 July 2021 does not appear to be as big of a cause for celebration as it was presented. Section 155(4) of the Evidence Act 1872 allowed the defendant to question the victim’s character in court. While the removal of this act stems directly from the reforms proposed by the coalition, it still remains uncertain to what extent, if any, they are going to be implemented.

It bears mentioning that the evidence does not support the claim. From January 2021 to August 2021, ASK reported 978 rape cases and 230 attempts to rape. That is, approximately, 160 women have been raped even after the announcement of the reform. All of this shows how even if these reforms are being hailed by many, they are yet to bring about noticeable change.

And that might be, as illustrated by the case studies, due to there not really being any initiatives to bring change at the root level. They also point out how glaringly the system of the country fails victims very frequently. The number of rape cases every year remains fairly constant. If anything, they seem to have taken a turn for the worse by the lack of any meaningful or effective change.

Statistics accumulated in this report demonstrate how instead of ensuring safety and rights for women, misogyny has only been encouraged and victims have been denied justice regularly through institutional failure. Without specific initiatives to fix legislation, the number of rape and gender-based violence cases will only continue to soar. Even after months of protests and two reforms, the pattern and the data reveal how only rich and powerful men are those wielding and dealing out justice according to their definitions. Reforms need to be introduced from the very base level to bring out real systemic change. 


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