A schoolgirl was burned to death in Bangladesh on the orders of her headteacher after she reported him for sexually harassing her, police said on Friday.
The death of 19-year-old Nusrat Jahan Rafi last week sparked protests across the south Asian nation, with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina promising to prosecute all those involved.
Rafi was lured to the rooftop of the religious school she attended where her attackers asked her to withdraw the sexual harassment complaint she had filed with police.
When she refused, she was doused in kerosene and set on fire. On April 10, she died from the burns, which covered 80 percent of her body.
Police said on Friday that one of the 17 people arrested in connection with her death had accused the school’s principal of ordering the attack.
The principal “told them to put pressure on Rafi to withdraw the case or kill her if she refused”, senior police superintendent Mohammad Iqbal, who is leading the investigation, told AFP.
Victims of sexual harassment in Bangladesh are often shamed or humiliated by officials when they report it, says @hrw.
– There are no witness protection laws or comprehensive school anti-harassment laws
– Less than 1% of reported rapes result in convictions, say rights groups pic.twitter.com/9ttE3c37ms
— AJ+ (@ajplus) April 18, 2019
Rafi had gone to the police in late March to report the sexual harassment, and a leaked video shows the local police station chief registering her complaint but dismissing it as “not a big deal”.
Iqbal said at least five of those under arrest, including three of Rafi’s classmates, had bound her hands and feet with a scarf before setting her on fire.
“The plan was to pass the incident off as a suicide. But it fell through after Rafi managed to come downstairs while on fire because the scarf burned and freed her hands and feet,” he said.
In the ambulance, fearing she might not survive, Rafi recorded a statement on her brother’s mobile phone.
“The teacher touched me, I will fight this crime till my last breath,” she said. She also identified some of her attackers.
According to local media reports, Rafi also wrote a letter in her class notebook, before she was set on fire, describing how the principal sexually assaulted her.
Two young men have confessed involvement in Rafi’s killing. They include a man who admitted to holding a grudge against her for refusing his own advances.
Her family members said they have been receiving threats from the principal’s supporters since the filing of the case in March.
— মেঘ (@Megh_18) April 11, 2019
Outrage across the world
The case has caused outrage in and outside Bangladesh, with Prime Minister Hasina vowing that “none of the culprits will be spared legal action”.
Rights groups say the number of rape and sexual assault cases has increased in Bangladesh because authorities have failed to prosecute attackers.
“The horrifying murder of a brave woman who sought justice shows how badly the Bangladesh government has failed victims of sexual assault,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
“Nusrat Jahan Rafi’s death highlights the need for the Bangladesh government to take survivors of sexual assault seriously and ensure that they can safely seek a legal remedy and be protected from retaliation,” she added.
People on social media expressed shock and outrage. Editor and writer Mariam Khan said not enough spaces have been created for young women like Rafi.
It’s not that I don’t understand why this happens it’s that it happens I can’t digest. A young girl set on fire for speaking up about sexual assault by headmaster. I blame men but also woman in #metoo movement who didn’t make space for girls like Nusrat. https://t.co/VMrneZclB2
— mariam⁷ is away (@helloiammariam) April 19, 2019
Another user said Rafi’s killing was a “disgrace to humanity.”
She was torched to fire, for preventing herself from getting touched and reporting about it to police. Yet another disgrace to humanity in our neighborhood country. #JusticeforNusrat pic.twitter.com/HB1kRPdaGM
— Deependra (@dpendra_chauhan) April 19, 2019
The International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, a non-profit organisation based in the United States, honoured her bravery.
Nusrat Jahan Rafi was burned alive for disclosing sexual abuse by the head of her school.
Today we say her name and honor her bravery.
— ICMEC (@ICMEC_official) April 18, 2019