(Dhaka) - The Bangladesh government should take urgent measures to make sure that religious fatwas and traditional dispute resolution methods do not result in extrajudicial punishments, Human Rights Watch said today. The government is yet to act on repeated orders of the High Court Division of the Supreme Court, beginning in July 2010, to stop illegal punishments such as whipping, lashing, or public humiliations, said the petitioners who challenged the practice.
In 2009 Ain-o-Salish Kendra (ASK), Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST), BRAC, Bangladesh Mahila Parishad (BMP), and Nijera Kori, brought a public interest case. They challenged the authorities' failure to address extrajudicial punishments imposed by shalishes - traditional dispute resolution methods - in the name of fatwas, opinions that are supposed to be issued by Islamic scholars. These punishments include whipping, lashing, publicly humiliating women and girls by forcibly cutting their hair or blackening their faces, ostracizing women, girls, and families, and imposing fines. While many of these incidents go unreported, ASK has assembled news reports of at least 330 such incidents in the last 10 years.
"These private punishments significantly harm women's and girls' lives and health," said Aruna Kashyap, Asia women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Instead of intervening and taking active measures to prevent these abuses, the Bangladesh authorities have been mute bystanders."
The issue became especially urgent when a shalish in Shariatpur district in the Dhaka division ordered 100 lashes in January 2011 for Hena Akhter, an adolescent girl, for an alleged affair, though by most accounts she had reported being sexually abused instead. She collapsed during the lashing and ultimately died. Since Akhter's death, the local media has reported at least three suicides of girls following similar punishments.
The High Court division of the Supreme Court issued its judgment in the case on July 8, 2010, criticizing the Bangladesh government for not protecting its citizens, especially women, from cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment. Saying that the punishments contravened constitutional guarantees of the rights to life and liberty, the court directed the government to investigate and prosecute those responsible and to take preventive steps with awareness campaigns in schools, colleges, and madrasas. It instructed the Ministry of Local Government to inform all law enforcement and local government officials that extrajudicial punishments are criminal offenses.
On February 2, 2011, the High Court issued an additional order directing the government to publicize as an urgent matter, through electronic and print media, that extrajudicial punishments are unconstitutional and punishable offenses. On May 12, the Supreme Court reiterated that "[n]o punishment, including physical violence and/or mental torture in any form can he imposed or inflicted on anybody in pursuance of fatwa." The court further held that fatwas can be issued only by "properly educated persons" and clarified that even where issued, they are not binding and cannot be enforced. Commenting on the Supreme Court verdict, Sara Hossain, a lawyer involved in the Supreme Court case, said that women's rights groups were relieved to see the highest court strongly condemning extrajudicial punishments in the name of fatwas. But women's rights activists in Bangladesh remain deeply concerned that the highest court had left the door open for the issuance of fatwas and the potential threats to women's rights to equality, she said.
"Akhter's public flogging and death is a stark reminder of the Bangladesh government's failure to prevent this type of violence," said Khushi Kabir, coordinator for Nijera Kori. "The High Court has been very clear that the government must stop inhumane and illegal punishments and the government's failure to do so costs lives."
Local groups that followed the case said that during the investigation of Akhter's death, doctors falsified initial autopsy reports to say that the girl's body bore no injury marks. The High Court intervened and ordered another autopsy, which reported signs of injuries. A criminal investigation is under way against those involved in Akhter's flogging as well as the doctors who fudged the initial autopsy report.
Local activists, who routinely monitor newspapers and electronic media, have said that the government has issued no public messages against extrajudicial punishments. ASK collated news reports of at least 16 such cases between January and May 2011. While Akhter died because of her injuries, ASK has found news reports that at least three other girls committed suicide because of the public humiliation they faced.
One girl killed herself, news reports say, after a local shalish in Cox's Bazar publicly flogged her in May for allegedly having an affair with her brother's friend. Another killed herself after a local shalish in Lakhipur district in April ordered her to be isolated and ostracized to punish her for an alleged affair. In January, a local shalish blackened a woman's face with coal, forced her to wear a garland of shoes, and paraded her around the village for marrying her brother-in-law long after her husband had died. Her parents later found her dead in her house and said she had committed suicide after the incident.
"The government has pledged to uphold our laws and constitution, and part of that promise is to prevent, prosecute, and punish these criminal extrajudicial punishments," said Faustina Pereira, director of BRAC Human Rights and Legal Aid Services. "There is no excuse for not acting."
In November 2010, Bangladesh was elected to the board of the international agency UN Women, assuming a new role in the international arena on women's rights. With this new role, Bangladesh should ramp up its efforts to protect women's rights in-country, Human Rights Watch said.
To end this kind of violence against women and girls, Human Rights Watch and Bangladesh human rights organizations ASK, BLAST, BMP, BRAC-HRLS, and Nijera Kori, said the Bangladesh government should immediately carry out the court orders and take the following measures:
- Initiate a massive awareness campaign against extrajudicial punishments in the name of fatwas. Among other measures the government should educate everyone in schools, colleges, and madrasas about the fact that punishments under the garb of fatwas are illegal and regularly publicize these messages through print and electronic media.
- Set up around-the-clock toll-free helplines that are easily accessible to poor rural women so they can report violence and seek emergency assistance.
- Improve access to women's shelters and safe homes in every district to ensure emergency protection for women if they face such dangers in their communities.
- Provide psycho-social support and legal assistance to those who have been punished by traditional shalishes, encouraging them to take action to hold those responsible to account.
- Monitor investigations and prosecutions into punishments imposed in the name of carrying out fatwas to ensure that the accused are punished under the law, and that effective reparations are available to victims and survivors.