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Sexual assaults during festivals: Trial proceedings in limbo

  • Published at 01:20 am May 22nd, 2018
A gang of hoodlums harasses a girl in Suhrawardy Udyan after they dragged her from the Book Fair premises on February 21, 2015. This is one of the many such incidents that took place that day. The same year, several more incidents of sexual harassment on Dhaka University premises were reported on April 14. However, trial of these cases are yet to see any progress
A gang of hoodlums harasses a girl in Suhrawardy Udyan after they dragged her from the Book Fair premises on February 21, 2015. This is one of the many such incidents that took place that day. The same year, several more incidents of sexual harassment on Dhaka University premises were reported on April 14. However, trial of these cases are yet to see any progress Dhaka Tribune

Sexual harassment has become a major cause for concern in Bangladesh. In the final part of this series, the Dhaka Tribune looks at some of the major incidents of public sexual assault in recent years and where their trials stand

Sexual assault or molestation is an omnipresent risk for women everywhere, but it’s an elevated threat at festivals, where it can take many forms, often perpetrated with a disturbing nonchalance. 

On April 14, 2015, for instance, the joyous celebration of the Bangali New Year 1422 was marred when 30 to 40 rowdy men assaulted and sexually harassed around 20 women at Suhrawardy Udyan near the Dhaka University campus. The horrific incident took place while the women were returning home late afternoon after celebrating the New Year along with their families and friends.

The incident triggered a massive show of indignation and anger all over the country. Calls for the government to secure justice for the victims were posted on social media.

Two years after the incident, two sisters fell prey to sexual harassment during the Holi (a festival of colours) celebration at Shankhari Bazar in Old Dhaka. 

Students of Jagannath University rushed in and rescued them from the assaulters. The brother of the victims filed a case with Kotwali police station following the incident.

Similar incidents of sexual assault and molestation were also reported in 1999 and 2010 on the Dhaka University campus.  

University authorities lodged a case over a 1999 sexual harassment of a girl during a New Year festival there. The victim reportedly refrained from seeking justice and refused to turn up before the court concerned, fearing social stigma.

After over a decade, the court in 2010 acquitted all of the accused of charges brought against them, saying the allegations were not proven “because of a lack of witnesses.” 

Victims’ accounts 

The girls and women who fell victim to molestation at any stage of their lives said social stigma and fear of being further assaulted deter them from attending such events despite their enthusiasm. 

“No one in my family talks about the matter. They always want to forget it,” a victim lamented, while describing her ordeals to the Dhaka Tribune. 

Since then, the family does not permit its female members to go out alone during such festivals, and discourages them from joining the events, she added. 

One of the two sisters who faced sexual harassment at Shankhari Bazar in 2017 said: “Social stigma is a big problem to deal with. Last year a national newspaper planned to run a report with our names and the whole description of the incident. But, we somehow managed to learn about their plans and immediately requested they not publish it.

“No one wants to stand by victims. Instead of raising their voices against the perpetrators, people always love raising questions about the victims’ moral character.” 

Expressing her grievance over the sluggish trial procedures, she said: “In the last one year, I have had to face harassment on several occasions. We have decided not to proceed with the case [filed by her brother with Kotwali police] anymore.” 

Legal quagmire

Very few offenders are brought to book for their barbaric crimes, while many get away through loopholes in the existing laws. 

The cases filed over those incidents that sparked outrage and fierce protests have not yet been disposed of, as investigators failed to submit their reports on some of the incidents on time, while trial proceedings of the other cases have yet to conclude.

Upon receipt of a complaint over the 2017 incident at Shankhari Bazar, police arrested three accused – Akash, Sifat, and Mamun – and submitted a charge sheet against the trio.

Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunal 3 was scheduled to hold a hearing on the framing of charges on April 4 this year, but did not. 

A total of 34 people have been made witnesses in the case. Police initially made a list of 13 witnesses to testify in the court that set June 3 to record their depositions.

All of the accused are currently on bail.

The case in connection with the 2015 incident at Suhrawardy Udyan is also pending with the court concerned. 

Some seven to eight people were reported to have been involved in this. As most of them remain unidentified, police submitted a charge sheet against one Md Kamal, mentioning him as the lone accused in the case. 

In June last year, the court framed charges against Kamal, who is out on bail now. But, the trial proceedings have yet to begin. 

Justice delayed, justice denied

According to legal experts and human rights defenders, once faced with sexual harassment, girls and women feel ambivalent about attending festivals or public gatherings owing to the prevailing culture of non-prosecution and non-punishment of perpetrators. And those who participate feel uncomfortable and insecure all along. 

The problems worsen also because of weak investigation and prosecution processes. 

“When an incident of sexual assault causes a public outcry on social and mainstream media, government high-ups, law enforcers and rights activists all seem to act fast,” Salma Ali, a women’s rights activist, said. 

“But, when a new incident takes place, the previous ones lose momentum, thus causing a delay in trial proceedings. As a result, the victims lose interest in seeking justice.”