Bangladesh’s cabinet on Monday approved the death penalty for rape convictions as the maximum punishment for the crime, after days of nationwide protests over recent sexual assaults including one that was taped and shown on social media.
The country’s president is expected to sign this measure into law on Tuesday, broadening potential penalties for convicted rapists. Under Bangladesh’s preexisting laws, those whose victims die during or after acts of sexual assault can be sentenced to death but this new law covers all rapes.
Cabinet officials welcomed the announcement while human rights organizations questioned whether capital punishment would deter rapists.
“The tough law is required to stop rape and violence against women. There will be a fear if maximum punishment is ensured,” said Obaidul Quader, general secretary of the ruling Awami League party.
The bill received final unanimous approval during a virtual cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
“The law will be approved through a presidential ordinance on Tuesday as the parliament is not in the session,” Law Minister Anisul Huq told journalists.
President Abdul Hamid is expected to sign off on the legislation.
“The parliament will then ratify the law in its next session as per practice,” said Harunur Rashid, a journalist who has covered government for two decades.
Human rights groups, meanwhile, said the government made a hasty decision to appease anti-rape protesters.
An alliance of 17 organizations, led by the Bangladesh Legal Aid Services Trust (BLAST), issued a 10-point list of demands after working to reform rape laws for the last two years.
One demand is to “amend the law and enact guidelines for the imposition of necessary punishments to ensure that judges exercise discretion in sentencing, which ensures the proportionality of punishment,” BLAST spokesman Taqbir Huda said.
“It is a misconception that the death penalty will reduce rape. Women or children who are victims of rape face obstacles at every level of the judicial process and become outcasts,” Huda told BenarNews.
“Victims of rape are generally socio-economically weaker than rapists. They face trouble while going to sue,” he said. “Even if they file a case, they have a life-threatening situation as there is no witness protection law and then they face interrogation in the court.”
Other members of the alliance include Ain-O-Salish Kendra (ASK), the Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, the Bangladesh Women Lawyers’ Association, Care Bangladesh, We Can, Women with Disabilities Development Foundation, Young Women’s Christian Foundation and Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee.
Their demands include the establishment of a witness protection law and a compensation fund for survivors.
Advocate Nina Goswami, the senior deputy director of ASK, said the quick decision by the cabinet would squander the opportunity for constructive amendments.
“Under the current law, rape is punishable by life imprisonment and murder after rape is punishable by death. How many have been brought to justice so far,” Goswami told BenarNews. “It is not a matter of getting justice if only the sentence is increased.”
Previously, a life sentence was the only penalty for a rape conviction with no allowance for judicial discretion. Those who killed their victims while committing a rape could also be charged with murder and face the death penalty.
In a Facebook post, lower court Judge Shawkat Hossain expressed concern about the cabinet’s decision, saying that if the crime was punishable by death, the number of killings after rape would increase.
The cabinet action came one day after a 12-year-old girl was reported to have been gang-raped in Dhaka.
“The victim left her house after becoming angry with her father and went missing,” said Kazi Wazed Ali, officer-in-charge of Pallabi Police Station.
“Four young men found the child and raped her, saying they would take her to her home. They gave the child sleeping pills before the rape,” he told BenarNews. “We have arrested the suspects and they confessed to the rape.”
Officers investigate all rape cases, according to a senior police official.
“Every case is being investigated with utmost importance and sincerity while maintaining the highest standards. The investigation report will be submitted as soon as possible after completing the investigation of these cases,” said Sohail Rana, an assistant inspector general and police spokesman.
Bangladesh has been rocked by protests after a video surfaced on social media on Oct. 4 showing a group of men stripping, beating and raping a woman with an object in southern Noakhali district in September. The woman could be seen in the video being kicked and stomped on as she crawled naked on the floor while begging to be left alone.
On Oct. 6, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal announced that six suspects had been arrested in connection with the case.
Days earlier, eight members of the student wing of the ruling Awami League party were arrested over the alleged gang-rape of a 16-year-old girl in the northern city of Sylhet in late September.
As many as 975 women were raped – including 208 gang rapes – between January and September, according to ASK, which said it had complied its information based on newspaper reports. By comparison, its annual report published in December 2019 said there were 1,413 incidents of rape the entire year, local media reports said, adding this was double the 2018 number.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International said Naripokkho, a local women’s rights organization, had examined the incidents of reported rapes between 2011 and 2018 and found that of 4,372 cases, only five people were convicted.