(New York) – Women’s rights activists are protesting following the acquittal of all five men accused in an alleged gang-rape of two women in Dhaka in 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. The judge said that the police had failed to provide credible evidence. The conviction rate for rape in Bangladesh is below 1 percent.
On November 11, 2021, Judge Mosammat Kamrunnahar, presiding over the Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunal-7, appeared to blame the victims for taking a month to report the crime, and, extraordinarily, recommended that the police refuse any rape case that comes in over 72 hours after the incident. In response, Chief Justice Syed Mahmud Hossain suspended the judge on November 14. Law Minister Anisul Huq told the media that “the observation made by Judge Mosammat Kamrunnahar is absolutely unlawful and illegal as there is no time limit in the criminal justice system for recording case for committing this criminal offense.”
“The Law Ministry’s clarification that there are no time limits for investigating rape cases was a positive step,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It is already nearly impossible to obtain justice for rape in Bangladesh, and rulings such as the one handed down on November 11 can only further discourage others from coming forward.”
Two men were accused of raping two women in a Dhaka hotel in 2017, while the three other men were accused of assisting in the assault.
Media reports said that Judge Kamrunnahar referred to a medical report that alleged the victims “were habituated to having physical relations and that their physical condition was similar to that of someone who engages in regular sexual relations.”
The description of the victims has renewed calls for the parliament to repeal 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 character of women if they pursue criminal charges, a clear disincentive to survivors to step forward, Human Rights Watch said.
The Law Ministry should immediately put forward proposals to parliament to repeal section 155(4) of the Evidence Act 1872, Human Rights Watch said.
In January 2020, the High Court ordered the Law Ministry to form a commission within 30 days to address the troubling rise of sexual violence in the country. Almost two years later, it is unclear whether the commission even exists and is functioning. The government has yet to pass long-promised laws against sexual harassment and to provide witness protection. Survivors continue to face stigma, and do not have adequate access to psychosocial and mental health services when they seek help. The Bangladesh government should create the High Court-ordered commission on sexual violence and publish its recommendations, Human Rights Watch said.
In 2018, the Bangladesh High Court ruled that police had delayed recording the complaint of a woman who was gang raped on a microbus in Dhaka in 2015, and the court 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. But these guidelines are rarely followed and there appears to be no system to hold police who ignore them accountable.
The government should provide training to all law enforcement and court officials on working with victims of gender-based violence, Human Rights Watch said. It should ensure that adequate and accessible resources for psychosocial support are available and accessible and should heed activists’ calls to finally pass a sexual harassment bill, provide witness protection, and reform discriminatory legislation.
“The government should listen to women’s rights activists and legal experts who for years have been calling for serious reform to address Bangladesh’s rape problem and to ensure that the justice system is a safe place for survivors of sexual violence,” Ganguly said. “Law Minister Huq can start the process of repealing section 155(4) of the Evidence Act.”