Rights groups accuse Bangladesh army of covering up sex assault

Protests highlight Chittagong Hill Tracts’ Chakma population’s anger at alleged sexual assault of two teenaged sisters.

Bangladesh [Mahmud Hossain Opu/Al Jazeera]
Rallies have been held in Dhaka against the alleged sexual assault of two girls from ethnic minority group [Mahmud Hossain Opu/Al Jazeera]

Dhaka, Bangladesh – Rights groups as well as ordinary people have staged protests in Bangladesh to demand justice for the alleged rape of two teenaged girls belonging to the Marma ethnic minority group.

Hundreds of demonstrators descended recently on the streets of the Bangaldeshi capital, Dhaka, and in Rangamati – a small town in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) region in country’s southeast, where the Marma sisters, aged 19 and 14, were allegedly raped by members of security forces.

The reported assault on Yan Yan, a prominent female member of the country’s persecuted Chakma population based in CHT, has further angered people.

Yan Yan, who holds the ceremonial title of Queen of the Chakma Circle, has been vocal aganst the sexual assault against the sisters.

A courtroom custody battle culminated in what local witnesses describe as the “forced abduction” of both sisters by the armed forces on February 15 on the orders of the High Court in Dhaka.

In response to the outcry, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of Bangladesh has created a three-member probe committee that is planning to visit Rangamati soon to investigate the allegations.

Low-intensity conflict

The CHT shares borders with India and Myanmar, and has been the site, for decades now, of a low-intensity conflict between the region’s 13 ethnic minorities on the one hand and Bangladesh’s armed forces on the other hand.

The CHT, by virtue of its nominal autonomy within Muslim-majority Bangladesh, has a total of three circles, each headed by a ceremonial king – Yan Yan’s husband Devashis Roy, a UK-trained lawyer who practices at the Bangladesh High Court, being one of them.

The alleged incident of alleged rape and sexual harassment of the Marma sisters occurred on January 22, several local residents and rights activists have told Al Jazeera.

A day later, they were admitted to the Rangamati District Hospital and were reportedly kept there under tight security and surveillance by the armed forces until their alleged abduction on February 15.

According to both Yan Yan and Roy, after the sisters were admitted to hospital, Yan Yan talked to them and the sisters told her they feared for their security and, thus, did not want to return to their home.

Instead they apparently appealed to the couple to take them under their protection.

Separately, the Marma sisters, whose parents cannot communicate in the Bengali language, also filed a police petition asking for their father to be given custody of them.

Multiple local residents and rights activists told Al Jazeera that on February 15, members of the police and armed forces stormed into the hospital and removed the two teenagers by force.

Yan Yan, who was present in the hospital that night with another volunteer when the police action occurred, told Al Jazeera that members of the armed forces and police – some in uniform and some in plain clothes – entered the room where the sisters were staying and, for all practical purposes, abducted them.

“When I protested, they threw me down on to the floor and started kicking me. At one point, the power line of the whole area was cut and they took away the girls in the dark,” said Yan Yan, who has been fighting for the rights of ethnic minorities.

Missing Marma family

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Sayed Tariqul Hasan, Superintendent of Police (SP) of the Rangamati district, denied the accusations and insisted that the two teenagers went along willingly with the law-enforcement personnel.

He said the sisters were handed over to their parents on Thursday night (February 15).

According to local residents in Rangamati, however, the family members have yet to return home, adding that there was no trace of the Marma family so far.

Hasan, the police officer, said the family members were being kept in the house of Avilash Tanchangya, ex-chairman of the Farua Union Parishad (FUP), a local community leader in CHT.

The village where the sisters live is under the FUP.

“They are in safe hands now,” said Hasan.

Minorities have been angered by the case of the Marma sisters [Mahmud Hossain Opu/Al Jazeera]
Minorities have been angered by the case of the Marma sisters [Mahmud Hossain Opu/Al Jazeera]

Rohul Amin Sikder, additional superintendent of police (ASP), in charge of the District Special Branch (DSB), also confirmed the family is with Tanchangya.

However, Al Jazeera could not talk to Tanchangya to confirm the police accounts as he did not take phone calls and his house was heavily guarded by the police.

Sikder said police had cordoned Tanchangya’s home under the instructions of the Bangladesh High Court, but when asked why the Marma family were not being allowed to go back to their own home, he replied: “I have no answer to that.”

Human rights activists and friends of the Marma family say the parents have been “threatened by members of the armed forces” and that the entire family faces “grave danger now”.

What is clear is that there is an information blackout on the case by law enforcement agencies.

As mentioned earlier, Yan Yan was one of the few people who were able to talk to the Marma sisters inside the heavily guarded Rangamati District Hospital on January 23.

The sisters were apparently able to give an account of their ordeal to Yan Yan in the Marma language, which the mostly Bengali law-enforcement officers could not understand.

Account of raid

Yan Yan later gave an interview to The Daily Star, the leading English language daily of Bangladesh, disclosing what the sisters had told her at the hospital.

Talking to Al Jazeera, Yan Yan said four men from the security forces entered the Marma family’s home during a dawn raid on January 22.

Two of them entered the house where the two sisters and their seven-year-old brother were sleeping, Yan Yan said, put a gun to the girl’s heads, and asked them not to make any sounds while they blindfolded them.

According to Yan Yan, the men took turns in raping the elder sister and sexually molesting the younger one, but when one of them attempted to rape the latter, she started screaming despite being warned to remain silent.

Al Jazeera spoke to a number of locals and learned that the parents and the elders of their village were called to the Farua army camp the next morning where they were asked not to discuss the matter in public.

However, the girls were taken to the Rangamati District Hospital on January 23 as the condition of the elder sister had deteriorated.

On the same day, members of the armed forces put the entire hospital under surveillance and barred outsiders from entering it.

Two days later, a local politician of Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League named Russel Marma, held a press conference at Rangamati Press Club, where the parents and the brother of the two sisters spoke.

In a written statement, Russel Marma confirmed that a Bangladeshi army team was in operation in the area in question on January 22 and they heard the screams of a girl.

They saw a member of a village security force known as Ansar emerging from the Marma family’s home.

A written statement issued at the end of the press conference did not use the Bengali term for rape but “nirjaton”, which means torture.

The statement also said the Ansar force member was later caught by the armed forces and was handed over for departmental action.

Lieutenant colonel Mohammad Rashidul Hasan, Director of Inter Services Public Relation Directorate (ISPR) – the authorised office for media communication for the Bangladesh armed forces – told Al Jazeera that the Ansar member in question is currently facing departmental action.

Hasan also said no member of armed forces was involved in the sexual assault on Marma sisters.

Ansar ‘investigating’

Md Abdual Awal, Rangamati district commandant of Bangladesh Ansar and Village Defence Party, said “that particular Ansar member” has been withdrawn [from service] and an investigation is ongoing.

The police, for their part, said they were “investigating” the incident but did not elaborate.

Interestingly, the little brother present in the press conference said in Marma language that “not one, but two men, entered the room”, and that the men were “wearing armed forces’ uniform”.

Several local rights activists, who did not want their names to be published, told Al Jazeera they believe the press conference was staged as a diversionary tactic.

Amnesty International, the international rights-advocacy group, has said that the Marma sisters’ parents were picked up by uniformed men from the Farua army camp early on January 24, and that they have been under joint police-military custody ever since.

The press conference organised by Russel Marma was staged on the instructions of the army camp, it said.

Amnesty International is also in possession of a letter signed by the elder Marma sister, in which they both express their desire to be released [from the Rangamati District Hospital] into the custody of Roy, rather than to their family, because “her family have been subjected to intimidation by the army, and her home is the place where the rape took place”.

On February 8, a petition was filed before Judge Jubair Rahman Chowdhury of the Bangladesh High Court by several human-rights activists demanding to know why the two sisters were not being released from the custody of the government.

On February 12, another petition was filed before a High Court bench headed by Justice Naima Haider Chowdhury to transfer the sisters to the custody of their father under police protection.

Validity questioned

Justice Haider Chowdhury has ordered that the Marma sisters be placed under the custody of their father under police protection.

However, an appeal has been made to the Court questioning the validity of Justice Haider Chowdhury’s ruling on a petition while the hearing of the first petition was pending.

The Court decided to hold its hearing on the appeal on February 18.

Meanwhile, it issued a directive to the Rangamati District Hospital management; Hasan, the police SP; and the deputy commissioner (DC) of Rangamati district not to remove the Marma sisters from their current location [hospital].

However, in apparent violation of that order, the sisters were removed from the Rangamati District Hospital to another location on the night of February 15, sources told Al Jazeera.

Hasan denies there has been any violation of the Chamber Judge’s order, telling Al Jazeera: “We had the High Court directive in our favour. The girls are with their parents now.”

Following the February 15 incident, human right activist Sultana Kamal filed another petition with the Supreme Court seeking stay on the High Court order.

The Supreme Court on February 22 asked the High Court to hear and settle off the rule by six weeks regarding the confinement of two sisters.

Source: Al Jazeera