Feb 01, 2018

Chittagong Hill Tracts: Suspicion of Rape and Sexual Assault Against Two Marma Sisters by Security Forces

Photo courtesy of @SFTHQ by Flickr 

 While on a patrol drive through Orachhari village, members of the joint army forces reportedly raped and sexually assaulted two Marma girls, aged 19 and 15. The sisters have been taken to the hospital and are in need of medical and psychiatric intervention. Kept in the hospital where medical exams were conducted, police members were standing outside keeping the girls in confinement. Journalist and right activist were not allowed in and the police is accused of trying to cover up its involvement with military pressure to not disclose the matter. The victims are still in the hospital, fearing for future harassment. Human rights activists voice condemn the incident and the security forces’ denial of any involvement in it - in particular as this is hardly a unique case and comes against the background of indigenous women in the Chittagong Hills Tracts being disproportionately affected by sexual violence and discrimination.


Report published by Bangladesh Indigenous Women's Network: 

On 22 January 2018, at about 2:30 am, an indigenous Marma girl, 19, was raped at her own home at Orachari village of Farua Union under Bilaichari upazila in Rangamati district allegedly by members of Farua army camp of Digholchari zone of 13 Bengal. During the same time, her younger sister, 15, was also sexually harassed by the same members of the security force.

Since the incident took place, army, police and local Awami League leadership have been making conspiracy to cover up the fact of involvement of security forces with the incident and to divert the incident to other direction. As part of this, first of all, army picked up parents of victims from their house of Orachari compelling them to attend the press conference organised by an Awami League leader who denied any involvement of army personnel with this incident, rather motivatedly held a group of local youths responsible for the incident. Secondly, despite Rangamati general hospital authority had agreed to discharge the victims as being treatment completed, police and army denied to release victims from hospital. The victims’ family and their relatives were too intimidated by the security forces not to disclose the real matter.

Journalists and well-wishers who were trying to talk to the relatives of the victims at the hospital found that they were under surveillance of police and detectives. They were obstructing journalists’ attempts for having a conversation with the relatives.

No case has been filed by the victims and their parents in connection to the incident with the fear of further harassment and retaliation. Victims’ parents live an ordinary life with nearly no formal education and political influence. They merely make their living on jum cultivation.

As soon as dark descended upon in evening of 21 January 2018, a patrol party of Farua Army Camp of Digholchari Zone of 13 Bengal, led by Warrant Officer Subedar Mizan of the camp, began a random search operation in Orachari village. The patrol party stormed every house of the village indiscriminately. They arbitrarily interrogated the people and asked for their identity cards. The military men also harassed the villagers casting flash lights straight to their eyes.

At some point, around midnight at 2:30 am (22 January), two army men entered the house of the victims and forced their parents to get out of the house. Then, one of them raped the elder sister while the other man in uniform guarded him with the gun in the door. Being at gunpoint, the parents of the girl turned helpless while the girl was being raped and screaming out loud for help. Shortly, the younger sister of the rape victim survived a rape attempt by the same group of army men.

On 23 January at around 12:00 pm the victims were admitted at Rangamati General Hospital. It is learnt that the condition of the elder sister was critical. Bleeding of elder sister was continuing on while admitted.

Later in that night, some villagers informed Warrant Officer/Subedar Mizan regarding the incident of rape and sexual assault on two sisters. He assured them of punishment of the alleged perpetrators with the condition that the villagers would not disclose the matter to anybody else. It is learnt that the alleged army man offered the victim’s father BDT 100 to give it to the victim. The father refused the money at once. Then the alleged army man asked the member of local union council, village karbari and local headman to be present Farua Army Camp the next day.

On 22 January in the morning, a team of army men made a visit again to the victims’ home and threatened in various ways. They ordered the victims’ parents that they were allowed talk about occurrence of 'some altercation' but not of 'rape' at all. In any case that happens, they would be slaughtered

On 23 January, during daytime, a team of government officials led by the Additional Deputy Commissioner (ADC) and Superintendent of Police (SP) made a visit to Orachari and spoke to the victims’ parents and local village leaders. In the video interviews they took, all the respondents were forced to speak what the army men asked them.

Journalists who were trying to talk to the relatives of the victims at the Rangamati general hospital found that the victim sisters were under surveillance of police and detectives. Police, army and detectives obstructed journalists from reaching the sisters and attempts for having a conversation with the victims' relatives.

Since the evening on 23 January soon after get admitted at Rangamati general hospital, a team of police kept the victims under strong surveillance, without allowing anybody to visit or speak to the victims. At about 8:00 pm, two police men took the victims to the office room of the hospital and interrogated the victims without presence of any female nurse, doctor or female police. Police ordered the nurses of the hospital not to provide the victims with any medicine or food without their (police) permission.

Chief of Chakma Circle Raja Devasish Roy and his wife Rani Yan Yan and Member of National Human Rights Commission Ms. Banchita Chakma and the others had faced obstruction from security personnel at the hospital when they went to see and talk to the two sisters on 25 January. It is also accused that the security forces of terrorizing the victims and attempts were being made to keep the Marma sisters silent.

On 24 January, in the morning, a group of army again went to Orachari village and took the parents of the victims, namely, Mr. Ushwe Ching Marma and Ms. Shoikra Ching Marma along with a local headman (mouza head) and a karbari (village head) to Digholchari army zone. The headman and karbari were released later in the morning while the parents of the victims were allegedly compelled to be present at the press conference organised by Rasel Marma, a local Awami League leader, at Rangamati town on 24 January at afternoon.

Notably, with an attempt to cover up the matter and to divert to different direction of this inhuman and heinous incident, Rasel Marma, vice president of ruling Awami League of Bilaichari unit, organised a press conference in the name of "protest against torture by miscreants in Farua of Bilaichari" on 24 January at Rangamati Press Club in presence of victims' parents who were brought by army from their house of Farua. Rasel Marma claimed that two Marma sisters were not raped or sexually assaulted, and some people with vested interests were spreading lies. However, younger brother (around 8 year) of the victims present in the press conference along with his parents, using the Marma language, said that the men who raped & molested his two sisters were seen wearing army uniform in their residence.

On 26 January, the victim sisters of Bilaichari in Rangamati were denied to release by police from their custody. Despite repeated attempts by elected lawmaker Ushatan Talukder, Chakma Circle Chief Raja Devasish Roy, Member of NHRC Banchita Chakma et al, the victims are still in the hospital, while passing their days in deep fear and insecurity.

Elder sister submitted an application to the Civil Surgeon of Rangamati district on 27 January 2018 requesting that she and her younger sister be released from hospital in the custody of the Chief of the Chakma Circle, Barrister Raja Devasish Roy. Accordingly Raja Devasish Roy also pleaded the hospital authorities for releasing the sisters to their custody so that they can ensure them better treatment, but their offer was turned down. The hospital administration was allegedly compelled by the police and security forces to refuse release of the victims without the consent of their legal guardians. At that time, using the Marma language, the victims were pleading to visiting Chakma circle chief and his wife to take them away from this hospital. Police administration denied their plea, citing legal complications.

Being adamant in not releasing two Marma sisters, police made several attempts to take the victims in their custody on 28 January. As a part of this attempt, police made an appeal to Rangamati Chief Judicial Magistrate Court. However, as there had been no case concerning the reported rape and molestation of the Marma sisters, the lawyers of the victims put forward the argument that there was no point of taking the victims to police custody. Accordingly, the court expunged the petition made by police.

On 28 January, police made three petitions to the Rangamati Chief Judicial Magistrate Court to conduct following tests: (1) DNA test of the victims; (2) medical test of the victims and (3) vaginal sperm test of the victims. The court expunged the petitions to conduct DNA and vaginal sperm test of the victims. Since a six-member medical board led by Dr. Hena Barua had already done a medical examination of the victims, there was no need for further medical test, the victims’ lawyers argued in the court. Accordingly, the court expunged this urge made by police too. Since the court already set a date for hearing on the medical examination report of the victims on 31 January at the Chief Judicial Magistrate Court, the court ordered to keep the victims in the hospital till the date of hearing. The court also ordered the lawyers to assist the victims to make the appearance on the stipulated date. After hearing on 31 January, the court ordered to keep the victims in the hospital for more a week as police claimed that medical report is yet to be received.

On the other hand, police claimed that the victims were minor and the matter was very sensitive, and media reports are being published on the incident. Hence, the victims cannot be released from the hospital, police argued in the court. As a result of police’s controversial role the victims remained detained in an inhumane condition at the hospital.

It is also accused that the security forces of terrorizing the victims and relatives for keeping them silent regarding involvement of security personnel with this rape and sexual assault incident is continuing. Meanwhile, on 28 January at around 10:00 am, the driver of the boat that brought the victims from Farua to Rangamati town was interrogated by the Camp Commander of Farua Army Camp. He has been identified as Mong Prue Marma, son of Lachik E Marma of Orachari village. He was grilled at the army camp about why he had taken the victims to Rangamati town by boat. The driver replied that he had been given 20 litres of diesel and BDT 1,000 as fare and he had done his job. He had not known anything else. After his interrogation was over, boatman Mong Prue Marma and UP member Shanti Babu Tanchangya were summoned to be present at Digholchari Army Zone on an urgent basis. Apart from that, a group of security forces searched for Mr. Daw Aung Prue Marma (66), the grandfather of the victims at his home in Orachari. Since he was not present at home, the villagers were ordered to make sure Mr. Daw Aung Prue be present at Farua Army camp urgently.

On 29 January at around 5:00 am, four villagers from Orachari village, namely, Chain Chu Marma (Headman); Kongjo Marma (Karbari); Tutul Marma and Sani Aung Marma were picked up by army of Farua camp and taken them to Digholchari army zone. At the same time, cloths of the victims were also taken from victims' house by the army. After interrogation and harassment, the four villagers were released from Dogholchari zone on 30 January.

The indigenous Marma sisters, still undergoing treatment at Rangamati hospital, are afraid to go back home in the remote hills of Farua of Bilaichari fearing further harassment. Sharing their fear with human rights activists and journalists at the hospital, the siblings said that their fear was not only for their own safety, but for the future of their entire family, their parents and 8-year-old younger brother.

It is worthy to be mentioned that the victims are kept in a general ward (women) of the hospital, along with several dozen patients. Numerous relatives and friends of those patients make visits regularly. The discussion of the issue of rape and molestation of the victims in front of other people is tantamount to further sexual assault. Moreover, it is hard for the indigenous people, especially those who are from the remote areas like Farua, find it hard to cope with the atmosphere of the hospital including food served in there. And it is indeed inhumane and torturous to keep the victims of rape and molestation in the hospital after the medical treatment who are in a mentally and physically abysmal state. In the name of medical treatment, they are in fact kept in a de facto prison cell. It can been considered ostensibly as a mental torture a case of rights violations by the administration itself. What is matter of grave concern is the administration has not taken any initiative to arrest and bring the accused or alleged perpetrators to justice.

Recently, from December 2017, fabricated and conspiring cases against the innocent villagers and indigenous rights activists are being filed one after another under collaborative move of ruling Awami League leadership, security forces and police in the Bilaichari, Jurachari and Rangamati Sadar Upazilas (sub-districts) under Rangamati Hill district. On the other end, the army-police joint forces are in a design that involves waking up the villagers at midnight, searching their houses, arbitrary beating and arrest in the name of searching operation in various locations under the said three Upazilas of Rangamati hill district. Till to-date, six fabricated cases have been filed against 112 persons in name and 75-96 unnamed in the three Upazilas. In last one and half month since 7 December 2017, 28 persons including the Chairman of Bilaichari Upazila Parishad and a member of Farua Union Parishad were arrested and sent to jail while 40 others were beaten up and harassed and around 100 houses were searched. Military personnel committed 22 January's incident of rape and sexual assault on two Marma sisters while conducting such searching operation at Orachari village in remote Farua area. At this, extremely heightened panic is reigning over the areas.