Speaking up against Violence, Rahela's Story

August 19, 2004. Under the pretext of giving her a lift home, 19-year old Rahela was taken to Jahangirnagar University campus, on the outskirts of Dhaka, where she was gang-raped and then mugged, robbed, her throat was slit, and she was left to die. The assailants were two of her colleagues, Liton and Delwar, and two other men, Akash and Kabir.

August 22, 2004. The group of four returned to find her alive, and in an attempt to disfigure her beyond recognition they threw acid on her and lit her hair and other parts of her body on fire.

A gardener later found her when he heard someone say, "I'm not dead yet, I'm still alive." She was taken to Dhaka Medical College Hospital.

September 24, 2004. After almost thirty three days of struggle, she could take no more. She died, leaving behind the names of the men who tortured her so ferociously, a husband, and a mother who still waits to see the criminals behind bars, for justice to be served.

April, 2008. Justice, for Rahela, is as elusive as ever.

In the four years since the 2004 incident, the trial was delayed due to "misplaced evidence," including her testimony. Meanwhile, Liton, the main culprit has absconded to India, while the other three were released on bail. One of the reasons cited was that even though Rahela named all four defendants to her mother, she had not mentioned the names of the three in her testimony to the police.

According to an April 7, 2008 news report on Channel i, a local television channel in Bangladesh, the evidence has since been retrieved. However, the police deny that the evidence ever went missing in the first place. At any rate, the trial is set to be in motion soon though a date has not been reported yet. And that has been the story of the Rahela case: announcements of dates, followed by complete inaction, according to Manobi, a Washington DC-based activist involved in Rahela's case.

There are many oddities in this case that seem apparent: misplaced evidence, length of the proceedings (the first court hearing was on October 27, 2007 - three years after Rahela's death), and the implicit complacency to seek justice. However, in Bangladesh, it's not odd at all.

It has been almost four years since the gruesome details of Rahela's struggle hit mainstream news media and four years since Rahela lived to speak out against her abusers. Her only crime was to trust her colleagues, a crime she paid with her life. The evidence, Rahela's statements and the doctors' reports corroborating her story have made for a compelling case, and bloggers and activists have watched over it. One such activist, Kathryn Ward, intensely campaigned to make Rahela's story heard, and perhaps it is such pressure that has resulted in the miraculous retrieval of the missing evidence. Four years later, activists are still hopeful that there will be a trial date set this year given that the evidence, including Rahela's own statements, blood-stained clothes, as well as a written statement has been retrieved. Will justice be served? It is anybody's guess. Manobi is hopeful that Liton will be convicted even if he cannot be captured, given the strength of Rahela's death-bed statement. One can only hope that she is right.

Bangladesh, like the rest of world, considers sexual crimes to be especially heinous and prosecutes its offenders under the Women and Child Repression Control Act of 1995 and the Nari o Shishu Nirjaton Ain of 2000 (Violence Against Women and Children Act). Under the provisions of these laws, a man accused of violence can be arrested and jailed for up to three months without bail. Critics argue that the law is biased towards women, but women rarely speak out against abuse due to cultural norms that encourage them to guard such secrets for life. Even when they do speak out, these acts do little to protect them or bring them justice. Rahela's case is sadly not an exception, but she lived long enough to leave behind a trail of evidence. It is worth exploring why these laws were not employed against those accused of Rahela's murder. How is it possible that the main culprit managed to steal away to India? Rahela's mother filed the charges against the four assailants, but it was the responsibility of law enforcement to arrest the four men under the mandates of the Violence Against Women and Children Act. By allowing Liton to run, the police denied justice not just to Rahela, but all victims of violence.

Someone once told me, "Violence against one woman is violence against all of humanity," or words to that effect. On that same note, I would say, getting justice for one victim is a step towards getting justice for all victims of violence.

There are many things that we can learn from Rahela's story - the pitiful state of the legal/justice system in Bangladesh, the extent of violence that women endure, and the complacency of people. But the most important lesson to be learned is courage. Courage to speak out against abuse. Rahela's case also highlights a need for change. A change in the mindset of people. If people accept violence as a part of life, violence will always plague their communities. In Bangladesh, many regard violence against women as a trivial matter. Some even justify the violence. The few that care are regarded as feminists who do not need to be taken seriously.

In the fight against violence against women, Rahela's case is an important one. The verdict of Rahela's trial has huge implications. Men who engage in violence against women, be it in their own homes, their workplaces or the streets, need to understand that violence cannot and will not be tolerated.

It is every woman's right to not be beaten, not to be left to die. It is every woman's right to get justice if she is violated in any way. Rahela may be poor, she may not have important political connections, but she has rights, rights that were violated in the most brutal, heinous manner possible. Her abusers cut into her spinal cord, slit her throat open, lit her body on fire, raped her and mutilated her body with acid. Rahela survived all of it so that she could speak out against her abusers. She did her part. It is about time that the legal system does its part.

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