Bangladesh to Permit Dying Penalty for Rape Convictions

The Bangladesh government approved measures to make the death penalty for rape possible after several high-profile sexual assault cases sparked widespread protests in the past few weeks.

Bangladesh’s cabinet secretary, Khandker Anwarul Islam, told reporters at a press conference Monday that ministers had approved an amendment to the country’s existing law that would increase the maximum sentence for rape to death from life in prison.

A statement by the president on Tuesday is expected to put the provision into effect by amending the law to prevent the oppression of women and children. Parliament is not in session because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Anisul Huq, the Bangladeshi legal minister, said Monday the government hoped the new measure would act as a deterrent and lead to a significant decrease in rape cases. However, rights groups have stated that it is not enough to just impose more severe penalties on criminals.

A series of harrowing attacks on women and young girls has drawn attention to the problem of sexual violence.

Protests have taken place in Dhaka, the capital, and elsewhere in recent days after a video quickly spread on Facebook of a woman assaulted by a group of men in the south-west of the country.

Sultan Mohammed Zakaria, a South Asian researcher with Amnesty International, said in a statement released shortly after the video was released that “the really disturbing footage shows the shocking violence that Bangladeshi women are routinely exposed to”.

But he also noted that this was part of a larger system of impunity for attackers.

“In the vast majority of cases, the judicial system does not hold perpetrators responsible,” he said in the statement. “There are no excuses here – the Bangladeshi authorities must immediately conduct a thorough and impartial investigation and bring those responsible for this vicious attack to justice through fair trial and without recourse to the death penalty.”

Following the recent case, local and international rights groups criticized the lack of accountability for attacks and minimal support for survivors, and called on the government to make significant changes.

That year, and also in response to large-scale demonstrations, the country’s Supreme Court ordered the government to set up a commission to investigate a sharp increase in the number of rape cases reported nationwide.

Ain o Salish Kenya, a rights monitoring group in Bangladesh, has documented 975 cases of violent rape, based on media reports. However, experts say the number is most likely higher as many are not reported.

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asian director of Human Rights Watch, said the introduction of the death penalty would do little to address the core issues and what she called an “epidemic” of rape cases.

“Aside from the fact that the death penalty is inherently cruel and should be abolished, Bangladesh faces a much more fundamental problem – that there is a broken criminal justice system in which survivors cannot even approach the police with confidence and prosecute successful” , she said.

It found that conviction rates for violence against women were “miserably low” and that survivors of violent sexual assault had no access to legal aid, medical care, safe protection, witness protection, or psychological and social counseling.

“The government should instead do the hard work to put in place safeguards and remove institutional barriers to the judiciary,” she said.

The public response to the condemnation guidelines has been largely positive. Tahmid Binte Mahima, 21, a graduate student, said the move was “a very welcome move” as the possibility of a death sentence could be daunting.

“Such harsh punishment will frighten offenders,” she said. “More important, however, is the strong enforcement of the law and the rapid resolution of cases. This must be ensured. “

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