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Culture of impunity

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By Sabria Chowdhury Balland
Tue, 07, 19

Morals and values are eroding in Bangladesh. It is becoming very difficult for the people to bear this miserable aspect of life...

world in focus

Morals and values are eroding in Bangladesh. It is becoming very difficult for the people to bear this miserable aspect of life...

The greatest incitement to guilt is the hope of sinning with impunity.” - Marcus Tullius Cicero (Roman statesman, orator and lawyer in the Roman Empire, 63 BC).

There has been a very disturbing increase in child rape and sexual abuse cases in Bangladesh. Between May 1st and 8th alone, in a matter of just 7 days, 41 children, 37 girls and 4 boys were raped, according to the human rights advocacy group, Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF). The foundation also states that three of these rape victims died of their severe injuries.

Sexual violence against women and children in Bangladesh has become exceedingly widespread in recent times. Another human rights organisation, the Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), states in its annual report that child rapes have increased by 18 per cent from 377 in 2017 to 444 in 2018. ASK says that in 2018, 1,011 children were subjected to various forms of torture causing deaths of 283 children. 108 children committed suicide and 28 died under mysterious circumstances.

The Home Ministry of Bangladesh claims that a total of 17,289 rape cases have been registered across the country between January 2014 and December 2017. The breakdown, according to the Ministry, demonstrates that 13,861 of these cases were of women and 3,528 of children. However, according to the Home Ministry’s own statistics, only 673 rapists have been convicted, resulting in 17 death penalties. The remainder of the accused are supposedly either imprisoned for life or imprisoned under various other terms.

The figures given by the Bangladesh Home Ministry are shocking in terms of the number of people raped and equally for the number of rapists caught and incarcerated.

With regard to statistics, it is of utmost importance to recognise that the figures cited are reported incidents of rapes and sexual assault. They do not take into account the perhaps thousands of cases which are swept under the rug for fear of social stigma and threats. Undoubtedly, the figures which are already hauntingly shocking are bound to be higher.

Perhaps the most widely internationally reported sexual assault case in Bangladesh is that of Nusrat Jahan Rafi, the 19-year-old student of a madrasa who was sexually assaulted by the principal. Nusrat and her family refused to remain silent and reported the incident to the police, for which reason the principal ordered her murder and Nusrat was burned alive in broad daylight in April this year.

Tragically, Nusrat’s case is not isolated. Every day, there are countless reports of rapes of young women, children, housewives, etc. When killed, the bodies of the victims are often found thrown in fields, garbage dumps and drains. It is a grotesque picture of an evidently lawless set of circumstances which remain unchecked by the law enforcement forces and lawmakers of Bangladesh. The most important question is: why?

After the Nirbhaya case in India in 2012, the Indian Parliament passed a law for fast-track processing of rape cases and more severe punishments for the accused. Whether this is considered sufficient enough for a system to address this horrendous crime is another discussion because what is significant is the fact that the government of India took measures, any measures, to handle the problem.

On the contrary, what we are seeing in Bangladesh is an attitude of detachment from these issues from the Prime Minister and her parliament and a spillover of this attitude in the law enforcement agencies. Human rights groups in Bangladesh are repeatedly blaming the ‘culture of impunity’ for the shocking increase of rapes in the country.

The opinion of the human rights groups is actually legitimate, considering the current state of political affairs in Bangladesh, a country which has become a one-party authoritarian state under Sheikh Hasina, who is widely regarded domestically and internationally as a dictator. Political and economic power lies entirely within the Awami League and its cronies. Equally powerful is the Chathra League, the student wing of the party, the foot soldiers of almost all of the violence and unrest on the streets. The toxic combination of all these Awami League associated entities has given rise to the impunity which has ingrained itself within the social and political structure. The network extends far and wide, not unlike a criminal organisation.

Thus the impunity is also exercised frequently. Rapists do not have the fear of punitive consequences as they or someone within their network of family or friends will most likely be associated with the Awami League thus they are sure to get free rein.

During the farcical parliamentary election in December of 2018, a woman was threatened that she must vote for the ruling party but she refused and voted for the opposition. She was consequently gang raped by local Awami League leaders in her home, in the presence of her husband and children. The main accused in the Nusrat murder case as well is known to have strong ties with the Awami League. These are merely two examples in a myriad of others. The word “impunity” was not used by human rights groups in vain. Undoubtedly, the Awami League claims the accused in at least these two crimes have been imprisoned but judging from the current state of governance, it will not be shocking at all if they have been released because of the impunity at play.

It is shocking, to say the least, that Sheikh Hasina, who by all accounts is the sole decision-maker in the mock government, has done nothing to lead or comfort the nation which she rules with a pronounced sense of ownership. Apart from nebulous statements alluding to the rapists not being spared, her only contribution to the Nusrat case (most certainly because of the international coverage and global outrage it received) was to bring in the family to visit her and to offer Nusrat’s brother a job. The woman who was raped for voting for the opposition was not that fortunate.

This, like many, if not all of the ruling party’s shenanigans, adds insult to injury, to put it mildly, proving that impunity and protecting her network, and not the lives lost and destroyed are what matters most to Sheikh Hasina, who ironically, is referred to as ‘the mother of humanity’ by her sycophants.

The transparent moral degradation in Bangladesh caused by an amoral leadership is taking a colossal toll on society at large. To quote former U.S. President Barack Obama, “You can judge a nation, and how successful it will be, based on how it treats its women and its girls.” The Bangladeshi leadership seems to think success is based on half-baked economic statistics and percentages. They could not be more wrong.

The writer is a teacher, political columnist and member of the US Democratic Party. She can be reached at [email protected]

— Article originally published in South Asia Magazine