Sixteen suspects pleaded not guilty Thursday and eight said police had forced them to confess at the opening of a murder trial involving an 18-year-old allegedly set on fire by fellow students after she told police their school principal had molested her, lawyers said.
The gruesome case – and the victim’s videotaped testimony as she was sped to a hospital, gasping for breath – shocked Bangladeshis and led Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to demand swift action against the teenager’s killers.
All 16 defendants entered pleas as a court in Feni district of southeastern Bangladesh indicted them for their roles in the April 6 campus attack that led to the death of student Nusrat Jahan Rafi.
“Today, the court framed charges against the principal, Siraj Ud Doula and 15 others for killing Rafi. Now, the trial in the Rafi murder case starts today,” Feni district public prosecutor Hafez Ahmed told BenarNews.
Despite their varying alleged roles in the attack, all 16 defendants could face the death penalty under Bangladesh’s Women and Children’s Repression Prevention Act, he said.
Eight of the accused told the court they had been forced to confess while under interrogation, but the judge overruled their requests that the confessions be stricken from the trial’s record, a defense lawyer said.
“They are innocent. The police forced them to confess,” defense attorney Gias Uddin Nannu told BenarNews.
On April 6, a group of students led Nusrat to the roof of a building at Sonagazi Islamia Senior Fazil Madrassa, where they allegedly bound her, doused her with kerosene and set her ablaze. She died of her burn injuries four days later.
Doula is accused of ordering the killing from a jail where he was being held after Nusrat filed a police complaint against him, according to the charge sheet. Five students – three men and two women – are accused of carrying out the attack, while 10 others are alleged to have been accomplices.
Testimony will begin on June 27 at the court in Feni, about 194 km (120.5 miles) from the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka
Rafi’s brother, who recorded her naming her attackers as she lay in an ambulance, said he was pleased that the suspects had been indicted, and that he would testify when the trial resumes next Thursday.
“We want this trial to be over within the shortest possible time. We want the killers to be executed,” Abdullah Al Noman told BenarNews.
“We thank the honorable prime minister for taking her personal initiative to arrest the killers and try them,” he added.
Charges against the accused
School principal Doula, 57, was the mastermind of the murder, according to the charge sheet that police filed with the court.
Five students stand charged with carrying out the killing: Shahadat Hossain Shamim, 20; Saifur Rahman Mohammad Zobair, 21; Jabed Hossain, 19; Kamrun Nahar Moni, 19; and Umme Sultana, 19.
A seventh defendant, Maksud Alam, 50, a member of the local governing council, allegedly provided 10,000 taka (U.S. $118) for the killing, according to the charge sheet.
Nine others are accused of helping plan the murder, guarding the gate to the madrassa while it took place, protecting the attackers and otherwise “aiding” in the killing, the charge sheet said.
Rafi was attacked after she and her family had filed complaints at the police station in Sonagazi alleging the principal had sexually assaulted her in a room at the madrassa. The police official who took her statement has since been arrested for recording and posting it on social media.
After the complaint was filed on March 27, police arrested and jailed Doula.
Some of the other defendants visited the principal in his jail cell, where he asked them to force Rafi’s family to withdraw the complaint against him, and if her family refused, he ordered that she be killed, according to the charge sheet.
Rafi suffered burns over 80 percent of her body and was taken to a hospital in Feni and later transferred to Dhaka Medical College Hospital where she died on April 10.
The trial began less than 2½ months after the attack because it outraged the entire country, educator and former government adviser Rasheda K. Chowdhury said.
“We will not get a single district where protest rallies against the killers were not held. The minor students to aged people took to the street for exemplary punishment of the killers,” Chowdhury said. “This is good that the government took the people’s protest seriously and took proper measure to arrest and try the killers.”