Editor's note: This story contains details of violence.
In April, just two weeks after pressing sexual assault charges against her school’s headmaster, Nusrat Jahan Rafi was doused with kerosene and set on fire in Feni, a small town in Bangladesh.
The 19-year-old student was rescued soon after her attackers fled the scene, but 80% of her body had suffered burn injuries by the time she arrived at the local hospital. The doctors decided to send her to Dhaka Medical College Hospital in the country’s capital, about 100 miles away, for treatment.
She died four days later, on April 10.
Now, sixteen people, including the headmaster, involved in the brutal attack will be charged with murder, Bangladesh's Police Bureau of Investigation said on Wednesday.
“They are charged under the women and children repression law and we will recommend the death penalty for all 16 accused,” lead investigator Mohammad Iqbal said.
Rafi's death sparked outrage. Tens of thousands of people attended her funeral in her hometown, and several protests were held across the country, calling for stronger protections of survivors of sexual assault. In Dhaka, women and teachers formed a human chain to protest sexual harassment. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina vowed to punish those responsible for the crime as a result.
"The horrifying murder of a brave woman who sought justice shows how badly the Bangladesh government has failed victims of sexual assault," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
"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.
While activists welcome the investigaton, they remain cautiously hopeful.
“Very few rape cases end in convictions,” the head of women's rights group Mahila Parishad told the Guardian.
Despite having been brutalized as a result of her first report against her headmaster, Rafi was determined to speak out against the abuse she experienced. She recorded a detailed statement on her brother’s phone while in an ambulance on April 6, fearing that she might not survive the attack.
"The teacher touched me, I will fight this crime till my last breath," she can be heard saying.
According to her recorded statement, Rafi was lured to the school’s rooftop by a classmate who claimed a friend was being beaten. Once on the roof, she was attacked by at least five people who demanded she retract her accusations. When she refused, she was burned alive.
Rafi had feared for her life ever since reporting the school official's abuse.
Rafi attended the Feni madrassa, a religious Islamic school and alerted school authorities to the abuse, but they failed to address her complaints about the headmaster’s alleged misconduct. So on March 27, she made a police report.
In a video filmed by the police officer who took her statement, Rafi is seen covering her face and crying as she details the headmaster’s advances.
“Are you sure you weren’t approaching him?” the officer asks in Bengali, even after Rafi has described multiple incidents during which the principal called her into his office. The officer later illegally shared the video on social media, leading to backlash against the teen.
Rafi’s headmaster was ultimately arrested, but once the footage of her report was leaked to the local media and her testimony was made public, she was subjected to abuse and received death threats from the local community.
Still, she continued to attend school and remained committed to getting justice.
The Police Bureau of Investigation chief, Banaj Kumar Majumder, told BBC Bengali that the killers wanted “to make it look like a suicide,” but Rafi survived and identified her attackers in the recording made on her brothers phone.
They were students at the madrassa, she said.
Two students, Nur Uddin and Shahadat Hossain Shamim, have since been arrested in connection with the case and have pled guilty, identifying 12 others invoved in the crime against Rafi.
According to Iqbal, the headmster ordered the murder while in jail. Uddin and Shamim were allegedly paid to carry out the task. Shamim also confessed to having a personal vendetta against Rafi.
“Nusrat had rejected my romantic advances several times a few months back. I was eager to be part of the mission after receiving orders,” he said in court.
Both the headmaster's alleged sexual harassment of the teen and the community's backlash to her report underscore the need for better protection against sexual violence in the country. Women and girls in Bangladesh are still subjected to sexual violence and harassment in schools, offices, on the street, and at home, yet their abusers are rarely held accountable. Instead women are often discouraged from filing reports or taking legal action against perpetrators, Human Rights Watch reports.
Many women are afraid to report cases of rape and sexual assault due to the fear of being publicly shamed. Courageous women, like Rafi, who do report assault often become prey to the culture of victim blaming, but the response to her tragic death has begun an urgent call for change.
Update, May 30, 2019: This story was originally published on April 25, but has been updated to reflect recent developments.