On 22 January 2018, two indigenous Marma sisters, aged 14 years and 19 years, were sleeping in their home along with other family members when members of Bangladeshi military entered their house and sexually assaulted them at gun point at Orachhari village under Bilaichari Upazila in Rangamati district in Chittagong Hill Tracts. The next day they were admitted to the Rangamati Sadar Hospital but the security forces have held them under captivity within the hospital room with 24X7 surveillance by police personnel posted outside the room. The security forces have prevented human rights activists or journalists from getting access to the victims. Only Yan Yan, queen of the Chakma Circle, managed to get access to the victims in the hospital.
Silence of the NHRC
The incident led to anger and protests from human rights groups and civil society.
On 26 January, human rights bodies took out a rally in Dhaka demanding exemplary punishment of the culprits. The protest rally was held under the banner of Nagarik Samabesh in front of the National Museum at Shahbagh. Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, Manusher Jonno Foundation, Kapaeeng Foundation, Garo Students’ Union and Bangladesh Indigenous Women’s Network, among other rights organisations, took part in the rally.
On 4 February, Nagorik Samaj held a press conference at the National Press Club in Dhaka and demanded a proper investigation into the sexual assault of the Marma sisters to bring the perpetrators to justice immediately.
Yet, the country’s human rights watchdog, the National Human Rights Commission, has gagged itself on this issue. There has been no official statement of condemnation, nor any notice has been issued to the authorities seeking a report.
Although a NHRC member from the indigenous community, Prof Banchita Chakma said the way the victims were kept at the hospital under police surveillance was “a kind of human rights violation”, the NHRC as an institution has failed the Marma sisters absolutely.
Rape of the Marma sisters
In an interview to the national daily The Daily Star (published on 2 February), Rani Yan Yan, who had access to the victims in the hospital at Rangamati narrated the incident as following:
“The two sisters—the elder is 19 years old and the younger is 14—say they saw four men from security forces around three in the morning on January 22. According to them, the men came to their house in the village and took their parents out for questioning—about a terrorist or something of that sort, as there had been raids in nearby villages the previous day. Two of these four men went inside their house, with the torchlight on, checked the rooms and left. They went back inside a second time, but left again. The third time, they turned off the torch and got inside a room where the two sisters and their seven-year-old brother were. The perpetrators apparently then put a gun to their heads, and asked them not to make any sounds and cover their eyes. Both of the men raped the elder sister, by turn; then they sexually molested the other sister, but when one of them attempted to rape her, she started screaming despite the men’s threats [to be silent].”
As usual, the security forces have flatly denied the accusations.
The Daily Star reported Lt Col Rashidul Hasan, Director of the Inter Service Public Relation as saying, “It was a drive of joint forces comprising army and Ansar members. When army members were searching the house in Faruay, one Ansar man entered the next house and held the hand of a girl. Hearing her scream, army members detained the Ansar man and handed him over to the Ansar authorities. But as far as we know, it was not a rape incident.”
That no FIR has been registered by the police and denial of access to the victims prima facie prove the involvement of the Bangladeshi security forces in the rape and sexual assault of the indigenous Marma girls.
While the rape victims or their family members are being harassed by the law enforcers and they did not file any case out of fear, the police merely filed a general diary (GD) at Bilaichhari police station, that too, only after widespread protests and condemnation by rights activists and social media users.
A local court in Rangamati has taken into cognisance the general diary (GD) filed by the police and held a hearing on the GD on 31 January. The next date of hearing is fixed for 6 February.
Victims under custody of security forces and surveillance
On the other hand, there has been continuous intimidation of the rape victims by the members of the security forces.
Chakma Rani Yan Yan demanded that the two Marma sisters be handed over to her to ensure their safety and proper treatment as per their wish but the security forces have refused to let the victims leave the hospital.
According to Rani Yan Yan, “There are severe restrictions on civilians to go in; no journalists are being allowed. When we go in, we cannot record anything or take photos. The authorities are scared that the sisters will say something to us and we will record it and make it public. On the other hand, the sisters have been questioned over and over again by their men. The OC himself came in, charged the girls and took their photos and videos—even though they are rape victims… There are plainclothes men with smart phones in their pocket, with the camera facing our way—we are always under surveillance, the girls are under surveillance.”