Bangladeshi police took in a local ruling party leader for questioning Friday, as authorities expanded their probe into alleged attempts to cover-up the murder of a madrassa student who was set on fire after accusing her principal of sexual abuse.
The death of Nusrat Jahan Rafi, 18, has shaken the Muslim-majority nation, provoking protests and spotlighting sexual harassment. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has pledged justice for the victim.
Investigators said they were interviewing Ruhul Amin, president of Sonagazi sub-district unit of the Awami League, a week after opposition leaders alleged that ruling party leaders were complicit in Rafi’s death.
“We have taken Ruhul Amin into custody for questioning to ascertain whether he had links with the incident,” Banaj Kumar Majumder, chief of the police bureau of investigation, told BenarNews on Friday. “If we are convinced he could be involved, we will declare him under arrest tomorrow.”
Police have arrested 18 suspects, including five who confessed to involvement in the crime, officials said.
“The killers tried to cover up the murder as suicide,” Majumder said. “But the plan did not work.”
Also on Friday, authorities launched a separate investigation into Rafi’s death.
“Two crimes have been committed on Rafi: sexual assault and murder. There must be financial transactions. So, we will investigate the financial transaction between the assailants, some local journalists and the police officers and others for their complicity in the two crimes,” Molla Nazrul Islam, superintendent of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), told BenarNews.
“We will file money-laundering cases against all the persons involved in the illegal financial transactions for committing crimes,” he said.
‘Will protest till my last breath’
Before she died in hospital, Rafi told her family that five people wearing burqas had lured her to the rooftop of her Islamic school, known as a madrassa, in the town of Feni on April 6. She said she was asked to withdraw charges that she had filed with the police against the madrassa’s principal, Siraj Ud Doula.
When she refused, her attackers tied up her hands, doused her in kerosene, then set her on fire. The burns covered 80 percent of Rafi’s body, but she told the story to her brother in the ambulance that took her to a Dhaka hospital, while he recorded her statement on his mobile phone.
She died four days later. Tens of thousands of people attended her funeral prayers in Feni.
“I will protest till my last breath,” she could be heard saying in the audio clip, which has been widely shared on social media. “I will complain to the prime minister.”
On Friday, dozens of demonstrators gathered in the capital Dhaka and demanded justice for Rafi.
NGOs have also issued statements deploring her killing and calling for action.
In a statement issued Thursday, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) demanded a judicial probe into the alleged negligence by police in their duties.
“Violence against women across the country considering the number and gravity of atrocities now reached at a level which is unimaginable,” TIB said.
New York-based Human Rights Watch earlier this week called on the government to “ensure justice” for Rafi, adding that her death highlighted the need for officials to take complaints from survivors of sexual assaults seriously.
“The horrifying murder of a brave woman who sought justice shows how badly the Bangladesh government has failed victims of sexual assault,” Meenakshi Ganguly, HRW’s South Asia director, said in a statement.
HRW feared the actual figure could be much higher, given the “enormous stigma” around reporting sexual assaults.
At least 940 incidents of rape were reported in 2018 in Bangladesh, according to the women’s rights group, Bangladesh Mahila Parishad. But other rights advocates say the number could be higher in the country where many girls choose to keep their experiences of sexual abuse secret for fear of being shamed by society or their families.
What precipitated the attack
Rafi alleged that the sexual assault occurred on March 27 at her principal’s office.
Her mother filed a case against the principal, prompting the police to arrest Ud Doula and a local court to send him to jail.
But a group composed of teachers and students formed a human chain outside the jail and demanded his release, threatening Rafi’s family of “dire consequences” during the rally, local resident Ruhul Amin told BenarNews.
On April 6, Rafi went to her school to sit for an exam. But one girl who was wearing a veil told her that one of her friends was being beaten at the roof of the school. She immediately rushed to the roof where the five attackers were waiting for her, investigators said.
The suspects encircled Rafi and pressed her to withdraw her complaint. When Rafi declined, the assailants tied her with a scarf, held her tight, poured kerosene on her body and set her on fire, police said.
Local police chief
In other developments, the government has created a police team to investigate Moazzam Hossain, chief of the Sonagazi police station, after he filmed a video of Rafi while narrating what took place during the alleged sexual assault on her.
The video, which became viral on social media, shows Rafi crying while attempting to cover her face with her two hands.
The police officer could be heard saying, “Nothing serious happened. … Stop crying … remove your hands from your face.”
On April 15, police filed charges against Hossain, accusing him of violating the Digital Security Act by sharing the video on social media.
“We have gathered preliminary evidence against the former officer-in-charge of the Sonagazi police station and senior police officers,” Md Ruhul Amin, a deputy inspector general of police, told reporters Thursday.
Hasina orders stern measures
For her part, Prime Minister Hasina has instructed the police to take stern measures against the killers, her press secretary, Ihsanul Karim, told BenarNews.
Hasina met with Rafi’s parents and two brothers in Dhaka on Monday and promised that every person involved in the killing would be brought to justice.
“None of the culprits will be spared from legal action,” aides quoted the prime minister as saying.
Police investigation chief Majumder said his agency had identified the five veiled suspects as Shahdat Hossain (alias Shamim), Jubair Hossain, Javed Ahmed, Kamrunnahar Moni and Umme Sultana Popi (alias Shompa).
One of the main suspects, Nur Uddin, told investigators that he and some of the suspects had visited Ud Doula in prison, where the school principal allegedly told the suspects to force Rafi to drop her complaint, according to police.
Another suspect, Kader, who was arrested Wednesday, said he was “directly involved” in Rafi’s murder, a police official told BenarNews.
It was not immediately clear if the suspects had hired lawyers.
In the case of Ud Doula, the school principal who is in custody, the local bar association “has decided that no lawyer will stand for Siraj Ud Doula,” Hafez Ahmad, the public prosecutor in Feni, told Benar late Friday, adding that the government would assign an attorney to defend the educator.
Prapti Rahman in Dhaka contributed to this story.