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Protesters hold placards and gather to demand justice for an 18-year-old woman who was killed after she was set on fire for refusing to drop sexual harassment charges against her Islamic school's principal, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, April 19, 2019.
Mahmud Hossain Opu/AP
Girls & Women

Bangladesh Just Sentenced 16 People to Death Over Brutal Murder of 19-Year-Old Student


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Editor's note: This story contains details of violence.

Justice has been served for a teenage girl who was murdered for speaking up against sexual violence in Bangladesh.

A Bangladesh court sentenced 16 people, including the principal of a religious school, to the death penalty on Thursday for the murder of 19-year-old Nusrat Jahan Rafi. The group of men set Rafi on fire in the small town of Feni after she reported sexual harassment in April. Each of the 16 perpetrators was also fined $1,183.

Human rights advocates welcomed the prosecution of Rafi’s perpetrators, but do not support the use of the death penalty as punishment. 

“The judgment proves that no one is above the law,” public prosecutor Hafez Ahmed told reporters after the court verdict, according to Reuters.

Rafi had filed a sexual harassment complaint with local police and named her school principal Siraj Ud Doula as one of the perpetrators. Doula then contracted several people to kill the teenager and make it look like a suicide, according to police spokesman Banaj Kumar Muzumdar. Two weeks after Rafi pressed charges against her principal, a group of men gagged, restrained, and drenched her in kerosene before setting her on fire. She died four days later. 

Rafi’s death sparked public outrage and a series of protests calling for justice. 

“I can’t forget her for a moment,” Rafi’s mother Shirin Akhtar said following the verdict. “I still feel the pain that she went through.” 

Trials usually take years to conclude in Bangladesh, but Rafi’s family pushed the court to process her case quickly. Her family is pleased with the verdict but they said they still fear for their lives because they were threatened in the courtroom for supporting her decision, Reuters reported.

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Rafi was one of the many young girls who face sexual harassment in Bangladesh every day. Women and girls are often subjected to sexual violence and harassment in schools, offices, on the street, and at home, yet their abusers are rarely held accountable. Rape is on the rise in Bangladesh with 217 cases reported in September alone — the highest in any single month since 2010, according to Reuters. The true numbers of cases are likely higher, but fear of judgment often stops women from filing reports or taking legal action against perpetrators, according to Human Rights Watch.

Women’s rights advocates in Bangladesh remain hopeful that the verdict of Rafi’s trial has set an example and shown that perpetrators of sexual violence will be held accountable.