Sexual assault victims in Bangladesh are being discouraged from seeking justice by the painstakingly slow trial process and a surprisingly low conviction rate, lawyers say.
On average, a victim has to wait at least four years before a trial court resolves a case and passes its verdict on the alleged perpetrators.
Lawyers dealing with such cases say they believe the conviction rate is very low – 3% at best.
Rights group Odhikar in a recent statement said incidents of child rape outnumber reported rapes of adult women. Between 2012 and October 2017, a total of 2,788 minor girls and 1,597 women were raped.
According to Odhikar, however, the data is just the tip of the iceberg because most rapes go unreported due to social stigma and fear of further harassment and abuse.
In many cases, the perpetrators are influential or politically well-connected men, who then threaten the victims or their families into silence.
There are also allegations that some of the plaintiffs accept out-of-court financial settlements with the accused in exchange for dropping the charges.
For those who do seek justice against all odds, the journey is not smooth.
“Many victims and their families lose hope and stop showing up at court because of the lengthy trial proceedings,” Fahmida Akter Shirin, of Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association (BNWLA), said.
Fahmida gave the example of an 18-year-old speech-impaired girl who still awaits justice over four years after she was allegedly raped by her father for 15 days in April 2013.
The girl was rescued by police and BNWLA representatives from her family’s West Agargaon residence.
The victim testified against her father, Md Jahangir Hossain, using sign language. Her stepmother had also testified before the court.
However, the police claimed in their final report filed over the case in 2013 that no evidence of forced sexual intercourse was found during forensic tests conducted on the victim by the Dhaka Medical College.
Lawyer Fahmida said the court had felt that the incident was true and the police findings were flawed. “Sometimes two-finger tests do not yield the correct result,” she said.
The BNWLA filed a no-confidence plea. This was taken into cognisance by Dhaka’s fourth Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunal, which ordered Jahangir’s arrest.
Jahangir moved the High Court against the tribunal’s decision to frame charges in the case, which has been pending with the High Court for over four years.
Fear and threats hold victims back
In another 2013 case, an eighth grader was raped by six men on a boat in Keraniganj when she took a ride with a friend.
The victim’s sister filed a case. Two of the accused have confessed to their crimes and four witnesses have testified before the court.
But the victim and plaintiff stopped showing up at the court because of fears for their safety.
The court even ordered the police to arrest the plaintiff and produce her before it. But when police went to her house, they found that the family had left the area after being threatened by the accused.
On August 22 this year, the fourth Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunal assigned a female lawyer and women rights activists to contact the plaintiff.
The court noted that it was not unusual for the plaintiff to skip hearings in this case as the accused were socially influential. However, it said the confessional statements, witness accounts, doctors’ report and the victim’s statement were enough to prove the crime.
The court has fixed November 30 for the next hearing.
‘Inefficiency of investigators’
Some of the investigators tasked with probing cases of sexual violence lack experience and skill.
Also, many police stations do not assign female officers to such cases. Several lawyers said that the police track record in dealing with child abuse cases is unimpressive.
BNWLA lawyer Fahmida cited a case in which the police did not even include the doctor who had conducted the medical tests on the victim as a witness.
The 2012 case involved the rape of a 16-year-old tenth grader by a 45-year-old man with the help of two others in the Lalbagh area of the capital.
Medical tests showed that the victim was raped and the report was also attached with the charge sheet. But Hazaribagh police did not include the doctor’s name in the witness list.
The victim’s lawyer then notified the court about the matter. The court is currently recording the testimonies of witnesses - five years after the alleged crime.
Misuse of law
Arfan Uddin Khan, who has served as special public prosecutor of a tribunal in Dhaka for several years, told the Dhaka Tribune that false cases were burdens for the tribunals.
These cases are creating a backlog and causing a delay in delivering justice in other cases.
“People also misuse the law when procuring documents,” Arfan said. “For example, the law requires the victim to get a certificate from a government hospital before filing cases alleging torture, but we have seen people illegally obtaining these certificates in exchange for money.”
Usually, the tribunals do not ask to scrutinise the certificates before the cases are accepted and proceed to trial.
Arfan pointed out that the law required that the lower court judges inform the Supreme Court and the public prosecutors inform the government from time to time about the progress of a case.
“But that never happens,” he added. “As a result, the law which is meant to protect the victims is misused by many to harass their opponents.”