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Yasmin’s legacy

On August 24, 1995 a fourteen-year-old girl was on her way to her mother’s house. It was a quiet evening in Dinajpur, when a group of police officers picked her up and assured her that they would drop her home safely.

A day later, her dead body was found at the roadside and the entire district of Dinajpur rose up in arms against the police and the local administration, forcing the government to take note of this incident.

Yasmin Akhter’s case represents one of the most shameful moments in Bangladesh’s history. The public protests ignited by Yasmin’s rape and murder made her a symbol of violence against women, of the violence of the powerful perpetrated on the powerless. But at the same time, public protest and women’s movement in reaction to Yasmin’s murder also became a means of social resistance to such violence.

Following strong judicial inquiry and police investigations, the three officers were finally arrested in 1997. Two out of three policemen convicted in Yasmin rape and murder case were hanged in Rangpur jail after midnight, nine years later on September 1, 2004.

The executed convicts were assistant sub-inspector of police Moinul Haque and constable Abdus Sattar. Their last appeal for life, the presidential clemency, was rejected. This was often termed as a beacon of justice served in a short time, the duration being almost ten years. Yet, the third constable Amritlal Saha, years later is still absconding.

Yasmin’s murder led to widespread protests in Rangpur – one police station was besieged by a crowd for two days. In the ensuing riot, officers fired on the protesters. Six people were killed and there were calls for the government to stand down.

‘An administrative flaw and our failure are visible when we see that we have not really done anything in case of those who were killed,’ says Farida Akhter, executive director and founder of UBINIG, a human-rights organisation.

For the longest period of time, the local police force tried to block the investigation in an attempt to protect their colleagues. Activists and lawyer continued to hammer on the case, until the officers were executed. ‘The lone fact that police officials actually tried to block the investigation and at several times created barriers for this justice to be served, is again a powerful indicator of how our society has been shaped,’ says Ayesha Khanam, President, Mahila Parishad.

‘The departed soul of my daughter will now rest in peace,’ Yasmin’s mother Sharifa Begum had said to the media, on the day the two police officers were hanged. ‘I pray to almighty Allah to save all other girls from predators, including police.’

Thirteen years on, nearly two months back, August 24 marked exactly thirteen years since that fateful incident took place. Social and women activists strongly point out that, legally and socially Yasmin’s justice has not been served. Yet this year in Dhaka, National Forum to Resist Repression on Women was perhaps the lone organisation which observed the day with a public function. The press and civil society seemed largely to ignore the day’s significance.

‘Yasmin’s case was one of the most symbolic cases,’ says Ayesha Khanam. ‘Yet, on a day such as this, there was very little done from the society or the press for that matter. Yasmin’s perpetrator is still around free and this fact represents the weak and ineffective judicial system in our country that failed to serve justice of this case even after so many years.’

Yasmin’s case remains to be symbolic and representative in several ways. For one, it was a case where those ought to preserve the security of citizens- the police officers were the perpetrators, secondly, the case also represented, as Ayesha points out, the weak and flawed judicial system.

‘After her body was found, it was easier to state that she was ‘prostitute’- reiterating the patriarchal society we live in and the narrow perceptions towards a woman’s respect and rights.’ adds Ayesha Khanam.

‘At the moment Yasmin’s case is at standstill,’ explains Advocate Zead Al-Mamun, one of the lawyers from Mahila Parishad who has been dealing with this case. ‘After the inspectors were hanged, following an appeal that was rejected, a warrant was made in Amritlal Shaha in that very year, as he had escaped. This warrant of arrest has been hanging till date- for ten years. It was the responsibility of the police to execute this, but unfortunately nothing has been done from that end.’

In addition to the fact that nothing was really done in case of the third criminal, Yasmin’s case also included the gruesome process of the police trying to hide all forms of evidences. ‘They even made sure the first autopsy report was false,’ says Ayesha Khanam.

‘The autopsy was first conducted by civil servants in Dinajpur- greatly influenced by the police, they concluded that Yasmin was not raped,’ says Advocate Zaed. ‘Later, a board was formed consisting of principals of medical colleges, it was then that her body had to be exhumed from the grave, and it was proven then that it was proven that she had been actually abused and raped.’

Further depiction of injustice in this case, was that those who had conducted the earlier autopsy and submitted a false report were not punished, rather released after trial, says Advocate Zaed.

‘We look at Yasmin’s incident from several dimensions,’ says Farida Akhter. ‘For one there was the issue of class, since Yasmin was economically at a more vulnerable position the police officers had the audacity to commit such a crime. A significant point concerning this case and in fact various others was the reflection of failed administration in our country.’

Akhter points out that the failure of Yasmin’s case has been also influenced by the ruling political parties; rather than keeping the case autonomous, as each ruling party changed, the stress and the focus changed with political interest. ‘One of the major failures for us has been the simple fact that we have not been able to keep this issue of a woman’s right irrespective of political power. In case of Yasmin and several others, the role of administrative powers – the way they looked at this issue and took it to the court was significant,’ says Akhter.

Apart from the fact that Yasmin’s justice is yet to be served, there are countless other cases of women’s rape and abuse that have not received due judgement or treatment. Even as human rights groups, over the past decade have championed the cause of helping victims of sexual assault file cases against their aggressors and the financial clout to carry cases through the courts of law, the incidence of rape seems to be phenomenally on the rise in the country.

According to statistics compiled by the Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, about 458 women and adolescents were raped last year while 201 were gang-raped. A total of 126 were killed after rape, 48 were burned and 125 women were victims of acid violence.

Experts point towards repeated cases such as Yasmin, where the perpetrator was again the police- those ought to ensure the security of a citizen.

On the afternoon of October 8, 1996, exactly a year after Yasmin’s case, an 18-year-old garment worker, Shima Chowdhury, was walking with her boyfriend, Abdul Hafiz towards the village of Majidapura near the city of Chittagong.

A group of police officers suddenly arrested both of them on the grounds that a woman may not walk with a man to whom she is not married. They were both taken to the nearby Moghdi police camp and kept for a day and then transferred to Raozan thana where Abdul Hafiz was sent to a cell and Shima was kept in the safe custody at the OC’s room.

Later that night, Shima was forced to drink something, after which she was raped four policemen. As Shima lay unconscious, the officer-in-charge called a doctor, after which she was transferred to the emergency ward of the Chittagong Medical College Hospital.

Following tests and dotor’s examination, it was proved that Shima had been raped which led to media and women’s rights groups attention. Shima was however kept in isolation and not allowed to meet anyone, and the officers claimed that she was a prostitute and had been raped by her own boyfriend and not by police personnel.

‘On October 15, Shima was again sent back to the ‘safe-custody’ at the Chittagong Jail,’ says advocate Alena Khan, executive director of Bangladesh Society for the Enforcement of Human Rights.

In January 1997, Shima’s health deteriorated and even after repeated requests by the doctors and lawyers, she was not transferred to the hospital. Soon afterwards, Shima Chowdhury died.

Shima should never have been in custody and, at the very least, she should have been released as soon as her medical condition deteriorated, says women’s right activists.

‘The case reflected the corrupt and the dirty system that so many women have been victims of,’ says Ayesha Khanam. ‘Once again, the whole idea of labelling her as a prostitute seemed to keep these officials away from any form of worry.’

On July 14, the trial judge set free all four policemen accused of raping Shima, as there were not sufficient evidence.

‘The irony of her case was the same as well, the police tried to save the culprit who was also a police officer. In fact the judge in the case herself stated clearly that the investigation was flawed. She also said that the accused, the witness and the culprit included only the members of the police,’ remembers Alena Khan. The case was reopened, through movements and protests. ‘Reopening the case meant running to so many places, moving through the years of procedures and so much more.’

Like Yasmin, Shima’s justice is yet to be served. ‘But, we will not lose hope,’ says Khan. ‘We have taken the case to the court and those who had been involved in this incident and had assisted the police officer have been charged and we are battling to ensure that at least they are punished. We cannot stop this fight- it is indeed a long fight, but not an impossible one.’

Indeed, the fight is a long one. Yet, as people point out the legislative, administrative and the whole social system calls for a change. ‘We have gone through more than a decade since those incidents, yet how much have we achieved in terms of a woman’s right – in terms education, economy, family and more, is a larger question,’ says Ayesha Khanam. ‘The patriarchal society that we lived in is still the same – the perceptions and the way the society has been shaped is yet to change.’

‘A woman’s right needs to be autonomous,’ Farida Akhter adds. ‘The administrative set up needs to be accountable and needs to be able to address some of the dimensions which cause the failure of such cases from being solved and also for such cases not to take place, in the first place.’

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