16 people sentenced to death over schoolgirl murder
The headmaster of a Bangladeshi religious school has been sentenced to death along with 15 others over the murder of a teenage girl who refused to withdraw a sexual harassment complaint against him.
The killers poured kerosene over 18-year-old Nusrat Jahan Rafi and set her on fire on the roof of her madrasa - an Islamic college - on April 6 in the southeastern district of Feni, about 160 kilometres outside Dhaka.
While some students, including two females, and activists from the ruling Awami League party participated in the killing, others guarded the gates of the seminary while it took place.
"We are happy with the judgment," public prosecutor Hafez Ahmed told reporters after the court verdict on Thursday.
"The verdict proves that nobody will get away with murder in Bangladesh. We have the rule of law," he said.
Rafi was lured to the rooftop of the seminary in Sonagazi where her attackers pressed her to withdraw the complaint she had filed with police.
When she refused, she was tied up, doused in kerosene and set on fire. She suffered burns to 80 per cent of her body and died in hospital four days later.
Police said the murder was carried out at the headmaster's order, who had plotted the killing from jail after he was arrested in late March.
Rafi's complaint accused the teacher of attempted rape, her family said.
Rafi's death triggered widespread horror across the nation, with protesters in the capital Dhaka staging days of demonstrations seeking "exemplary punishment" for the killers.
The murder also put pressure on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to do more to protect women, with her government ordering some 27,000 schools to set up committees to prevent sexual violence.
She said she had met Rafi's family and vowed to bring the killers to justice.
All the accused were present when the verdict was pronounced in the crowded courtroom amid tight security, lawyer Farid Hazari said.
Some of them shouted at the prosecution lawyers, while others broke down in tears.
'NOT A BIG DEAL'
Rafi had gone to police in late March to report the sexual harassment, and a leaked video showed the local station chief registering her complaint but dismissing it as "not a big deal".
Police said the attackers' plan had been to pass off her death as suicide, but this failed after Rafi managed to stagger down the stairs while still engulfed in flames.
Activists say many of the women and children who report sexual violence in Bangladesh often suffer a backlash, and that successful prosecutions are rare.
Rafi's case was fast-tracked, with the hearing taking only 62 days at a special tribunal hearing cases of violence against women and children.
Maleka Banu, the head of a woman's rights group, said it was an exemplary punishment.
"We hope it will send a serious message to the perpetrators and collaborators of sexual violence," she said.
Since the arrest of the headmaster, at least five more madrasa teachers have been held on charges of rape and sexual assault of their students.
Defence lawyers said they would appeal against Thursday's verdict in the high court.