A student activist holds a placard during a protest on Oct. 4 by Bangladesh Students’ Union in capital Dhaka demanding tougher punishment for rapists. The government has decided to introduce the death penalty for rape amid massive protests. (Photo: Bangladesh Students’ Union)
Following days of angry street protests demanding justice including the death penalty for some brutal gang rapes in Bangladesh, the government has decided to introduce capital punishment for the crime, triggering a debate over whether it can really bring an end to sexual violence committed with impunity.
Anisul Huq, Bangladesh’s law minister, said on Oct. 12 that the cabinet has approved a draft amendment to the Women and Children Repression (Prevention) Act 2000 that includes the death penalty for rape. The amendment will come into effect with an executive order from President Abdul Hamid as parliament is suspended during Covid-19.
Under the existing law, the maximum punishment for rape is life in prison or the death penalty when the victim is killed or dies from injuries sustained during the assault.
The government move is in response to criticism at home and abroad as well as nationwide street protests for nearly a week following several high-profile gang rape cases in Bangladesh. Protesters have called for the death penalty and strict enforcement of the law to curb an alarming rise in rape cases and an extremely low rate of trials and convictions.
A 37-year-old housewife was gang-raped, beaten, stripped and filmed naked while begging for mercy from her tormentors in Noakhali district on Sept. 2. The video was circulated on social media 32 days later to socially ostracize the woman as having an “immoral character.” The viral video sparked a massive public backlash and forced law enforcers to hunt and arrest nine accused rapists.
The victim told a team from the National Human Rights Commission that the leader of the same notorious local criminal gang raped her several times before terrorizing her with weapons.
The brutal rape came days after a newly married woman was raped by six men at a college campus in Sylhet district on Sept. 25. It was a day after the gang rape of an indigenous Chakma woman with an intellectual disability by nine men in Khagrachhari district of Chittagong Hill Tracts.
According to data from the One-Stop-Crisis Center, a multisectoral mechanism for preventing violence against women, only 3.56 percent of cases filed under the Women and Children Repression (Prevention) Act 2000 have resulted in a court judgment and only 0.37 percent of cases ended with convictions.
Dhaka-based rights group Ain-O-Salish Kendra (ASK) documented 975 rape cases including 208 gang rapes in Bangladesh from January to September this year. It recorded 1,413 rape cases in 2019, about double the 732 in 2018.
No mercy for rapists
Shakhawat Hossain, 25, a postgraduate sociology student at Dhaka University, has taken part in massive protests in capital Dhaka to demand the death penalty for rape.
He believes the death penalty and implementation would send a message to society and the state that a heinous crime like rape is absolutely unacceptable.
“Rape has engulfed our society and state, and today no woman is safe from rape. Rapists are worse than animals and they don’t deserve mercy to live anymore. We thank the government for approving the amendment to the law and introducing the death penalty. We demand completion of all rape cases in the quickest possible time and handing down of punishment to rapists,” Hossain told UCA News.
The traditional social latitude for males and political patronage should be stopped and laws enforced so that justice can take its own course without any external or internal influence, he noted.
“Impunity is part of the criminal justice system, which must end now. The law must be enforced strictly everywhere and no perpetrators should be spared,” Hossain added.
Death penalty is not a solution
Rights and women activists as well as a Catholic Church official equivocally dismissed the death penalty as a solution to deplorable crimes like rape.
“The death penalty is not acceptable from a human rights perspective. The law is not a problem but the main obstacles are in a system that makes justice impossible, prolonged and favorable to influential criminals,” Nina Goswami, a Supreme Court lawyer and senior deputy director of ASK, told UCA News.
“If we cannot ensure the end of impunity and proper and speedy functioning of the legal system, there would be no result from the death penalty. The rape cases won’t end up in judgments and convictions.”
Rita Roselin Costa, a women's and social activist, is skeptical about the death penalty and fears it might trigger even more killings of rape victims.
“The death penalty might instill a bit of fear in the rapists but I don’t think it can really curb the rape menace. The rapists now might think of murdering the victim and hiding the body in order to get away with the crime, and that’s a real danger for women,” Costa, convener of the women’s desk at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Bangladesh, told UCA News.
However, as a citizen aggrieved over rising rapes, she thinks the death penalty can be put in place as “rapists who commit the crime or kill victims don’t really deserve to live.”
“The most important thing is to ensure a fair and quick justice system for rape cases. On the other hand, the government and non-government organizations should address the issue of moral degradation and decline of social values everywhere in society and the state,” Costa added.
Father Albert T. Rozario, a member of the Catholic bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission, said the Church denounces the death penalty as it opposes the taking away of life in any form, even through the justice system.
“The government has introduced the death penalty under public pressure, which the Church cannot support. By putting forth the death penalty, various problems that trigger crimes like rape and impunity are being bypassed. The death penalty might reduce rape or sexual violence to some extent, but it is no way an effective solution when we don’t tackle other issues like impunity, moral decline and sheltering of criminals,” Father Rozario told UCA News.