Nusrat Jahan Rafi: The Bangladeshi Teenager Burned To Death For Speaking Out

Against a backdrop of rising sexual violence, her murder sparked furious protests in Bangladesh's capital Dhaka.
Bangladeshi women hold placards and photographs of schoolgirl Nusrat Jahan Rafi at a protest in Dhaka.
Bangladeshi women hold placards and photographs of schoolgirl Nusrat Jahan Rafi at a protest in Dhaka.
SAZZAD HOSSAIN via Getty Images

Nusrat Jahan Rafi was 19 when she died after being deliberately set on fire on the roof of her school.

Despite immense pressure she had refused to withdraw an accusation of attempted rape against the principal of the madrasa (Islamic college) she attended in Feni, some 100 miles from Bangladesh’s capital of Dhaka.

On Thursday 16 people – including the madrasa’s principle Siraj Ud Doula, Al Jazeera reported – were sentenced to death after being found guilty of the murder.

In their charge sheet, police said her death had been orchestrated by Doula himself – an accusation defence lawyers had unsuccessfully tried to dispel by claiming Rafi had committed suicide.

“I can’t forget her for a moment. I still feel the pain that she went through,” her distraught mother Shirin Akhtar said, bursting into tears at home after receiving news of the sentence.

Rafi had first filed a complaint in March, claiming Doula had called her into his office at Sonagazi Senior Fazil Madrasa and touched her inappropriately – a complaint which led to his arrest, The Guardian reported.

Members of his family attempted to pressure Rafi into dropping the complaint, but she refused to do so.

Despite being behind bars, Doula managed to order Rafi’s death from prison, assisted by two politicians Maksud Alam and Ruhul Amin from the ruling Awami League Party and several students at the school, Al Jazeera reported.

On April 6, the day of the attack, Rafi went to school to sit an exam but was lured onto the roof of the school where five people tied her hands and feet with a scarf, doused her in paraffin, and set her on fire, police said.

The plan was to pass her death off as suicide, but Rafi managed to run downstairs after the flames had disintegrated the scarves around her limbs.

Despite suffering burns to 80% of her body, she managed to make a statement in the back of the ambulance, which was filmed by her brother on his phone, BBC reported.

“The teacher touched me. I will fight this crime till my last breath,” she said.

She died four days later in hospital.

Accused people are taken out of the court premises after they were given death sentences in a murder case in Feni.
Accused people are taken out of the court premises after they were given death sentences in a murder case in Feni.

Her murder took place in an atmosphere of growing anger over sexual harassment and abuse in Bangladesh.

The nation has seen a dramatic rise in the number of rape cases in recent months, with 217 women and children raped in September – the highest figure in any month since 2010 according to a report published by Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, a women’s right group.

This number is thought to be a vast underrepresentation as many cases go unreported by women terrified of being stigmatised as a result of speaking out.

Rights activists in the country have pointed to a lack of awareness, a culture of impunity, and people of influence protecting suspected rapists for political reasons as factors leading to a rise in rapes.

Rafi’s death proved something of a boiling point for Bangladeshis furious with rising instances of sexual violence, with crowds pouring out into the streets to call for her killers to be punished.

In the wake of Rafi’s murder, Bangladesh’s prime minister Sheikh Hasina promised that swift action would be taken against the perpetrators, vowing “none of the culprits will be spared legal action.”

Speaking on Sunday, a day before the verdict was given, Rafi’s father AKM Musa Manik told Al Jazeera about his hopes for justice. “The whole country had seen what happened to my daughter,” he said.

“She was an innocent girl and was brutally murdered for her strong stance against a wrongdoing.”

Twelve of the 16 accused confessed to the killing, with the entire group sentenced to death on Thursday.

The sentences will be sent to the country’s high court where they will be confirmed, however they are likely to be appealed.

Rafi’s family may now see justice be done, but their torment is not yet over.

Her brother Mahmudul Hasan Noman has urged the authorities to carry out the sentences as quickly as possible, and pleaded for protection for his family against reprisals.

Although the days after Rafi’s death had been dominated by protests against sexual violence, a small number of protestors had called for the release of the principal.

“We live in fear,” Noman said on Thursday. “We were threatened even today in the courtroom.”

Despite the tragic events that led to Rafi’s death, human rights activists hope her story, and the ensuing court case, will inspire other women to come forward.

Rafi’s case was fast-tracked in just 62 days, but prosecution in cases of sexual violence is still very rare in Bangladesh with court proceedings often taking years to conclude.

“This verdict has set an example,” said Ayesha Khanam, the head of Mahila Parishad said.

“It shows that with utmost sincerity we can ensure justice within our existing system.”


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