The brutal murder of a young woman who dared to take on a powerful religious teacher – accusing him of sexual harassment, which led to his arrest – has been described as an unprecedented case in the history of Bangladesh.

In jail, the teacher plotted her murder and sent instructions to his followers to coerce her family into withdrawing her complaint. When the 19-year-old woman refused, they burnt her alive.

The fact that some of the killers belonged to the ruling party, the Awami League, did not help matters.

A swift investigation and trial ended with the court ordering the death sentence for the 16 people accused of plotting and murdering Nusrat Jahan Rafi.

Cause celebre

The sensational murder of Rafi has few parallels in a conservative South Asian nation that has had a low level of safety and rights for women for decades. However, this case has now become a cause celebre in the country and has drawn support from across the Indian subcontinent.

Just after 11am on Thursday October 24, Judge Mamunur Rashid of the Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunal started reading the verdict in a jam-packed courtroom in the southern district of Feni, about 160 kilometers from the capital Dhaka.

Lawyers said this was the first time that the Tribunal had been able to deliver a murder verdict within six months of a case being filed.

Rafi’s gruesome murder sparked nationwide protests and garnered international attention. This was a rare occasion when a young woman dared to stand up against a powerful figure and refused to back down. When the news of her horrific murder was revealed, people poured into the streets to demand justice.

Rafi initially filed a complaint with police alleging that the principal of her school had called her into his office and repeatedly touched her inappropriately before she ran out.

Later, when the principal was arrested for sexual harassment, there were protests staged by his supporters, many of them local politicians. But the accused, Islamic seminary principal Siraj Ud Doula, was quite nonchalant when taken to prison on March 27.

Revenge

Police said Doula masterminded a plan of revenge, giving instructions to his associates Shahadat Hossain Shamim, Nuruddin and several others who went to meet him at the jail four days after his arrest.

Doula instructed them to put pressure on Rafi’s family members and threaten them, if necessary, to make her withdraw the case against him. His associates included two local Awami League leaders and several madrasa students.

On April 6, Rafi was lured to the roof of the school, where five others bound her hands and feet with a scarf, poured kerosene over her and set her ablaze, police said. The killers had allegedly planned to pass off her murder as a suicide, but Rafi managed to run downstairs after the flames burned through the scarf binding her limbs.

In an ambulance on the way to hospital, Rafi identified some of her attackers in a video statement. “The teacher touched me. I will fight this crime till my last breath,” she said. But the young student had suffered burns to 80% of her body and died in hospital five days later.

Her death sparked protests across Bangladesh and led to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina vowing speedy action on the case.

On May 29, the Police Bureau of Investigation (PBI) began looking into the case. They submitted a charge-sheet seeking the death penalty for Sirajuddaula, the prime accused, and 15 others. Their report said 16 people, split into five groups, took part in the brutal killing of Nusrat.

The trial began on June 10 when the case was moved to a Feni court. Ten days later, the 16 accused, including Doula, were indicted. The proceedings began with the court hearing testimony from Rafi’s brother Noman on June 27 and 30.

All up, the tribunal heard testimony from 87 out of a total of 92 witnesses in less than six months.

‘An inspiration for women’

The court said the brutal killing of Rafi inside the madrasa had shaken the “conscience of the world” and that the “victim Nusrat Jahan Rafi’s brilliant sacrifice to protect the dignity of women gave her immortality. Her immortality is forever an inspiration for the women.”

Soon after, the accused became agitated and started shouting at the judge.

However, Hafez Ahmed, the public prosecutor for Feni District Judge Court, expressed satisfaction at the verdict. “All of the accused were directly and indirectly involved in sexual harassment and the slaying of Nusrat,” he said. “After taking into consideration the case documents, including Nusrat’s dying statement, different audiovisual records, and telephone conversations among the accused, the court awarded them capital punishment under Section 4(1), 4 (1) 30 of the Women and Children Prevention Repression Act.”

Rafi’s brother Mahmudul Hasan Noman and his family members also expressed satisfaction over the verdict and called for immediate execution of the verdict. They also thanked Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for ensuring justice within a short time.

However, Rafi’s father AK Musa sought protection from the government, fearing that he or his family may be targeted for attacks after the verdict.

The Attorney-General of Bangladesh, Mahbubey Alam, hailed the case as a milestone and said his office would take steps necessary for a quick hearing on the appeal, when the case moves to the High Court. The country’s top law officer said he was very happy to see the lower court able to deliver its verdict promptly.

“If all case trial proceedings, especially cases of killings, can be completed within a short time like  this case, the victim’s families will get justice and offenders will also fear the consequences of their misdeeds,” Alam said.

However, defense lawyer Giasuddin Nannu expressed dissatisfaction over the verdict and said the 16 convicts would challenge the lower court’s verdict and punishment. He said they would appeal to the High Court within seven days. “The verdict is unfortunate, undesired and unexpected. We hope that the High Court will acquit all the accused in the case,” he said.