Bangladesh's Cabinet on Monday approved an amendment to introduce the death penalty for rape cases after a series of recent sexual assaults sparked nationwide protests.
Bangladesh was rocked over the weekend by an unprecedented level of protest after footage of a brutal gang assault on a woman went viral on social media. Demonstrators carried signs reading "Hang the rapists" and "No mercy to rapists".
“The Cabinet unanimously endorsed the amended law, prescribing capital punishment for rape instead of (existing) lifetime rigorous imprisonment,” Cabinet secretary Khandaker Anwarul Islam told a news briefing emerging from the meeting of the council of ministers.
He added that during the Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina emphasised on completing rape trials within the stipulated timeframe as well.
Law minister Anisul Huq told PTI that the Women and Children Repression Prevention (Amendment) Bill is expected to receive President Abdul Hamid's approval today to be promulgated as an ordinance since parliament was not in session at the moment.
"Surely it (law) will be a deterrent to such notorious crimes," Huq said.
The changes to the law were demanded by thousands of demonstrators across the Muslim-majority nation calling for more stringent punishments for the perpetrators of sexual assaults.
Police arrested eight suspects after the video of the assault went viral more than a month after the attack occurred at the victim’s home in Noakhali.
In a separate case, another woman was allegedly gang-raped last week in a hostel in the northern district of Sylhet, leading to the arrest of several members of the student wing of the ruling party.
Protesters in the capital Dhaka and elsewhere have demanded stiffer punishments for rape, faster trials for rapists and an end to what they see as a culture of impunity.
Some have also called for Hasina's resignation, an unusual show of public defiance in a country where open criticism of the premier has become increasingly rare.
"Access to justice begins at local police stations which needs properly trained expert officials handle such sensitive cases," Bangladesh National Women Lawyers' Association (BNWLA) Executive Director Advocate Salma Ali said.
"The victims should as well be protected from the further traumatic situation during their appearances in court when the trial is underway."
Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) spokesman Taqbir Huda said the absence of death penalty for single perpetrator rape under the existing law never appeared as an obstruction to justice".
"The biggest barriers to justice for rape have been the lack of a witness protection system, the lack of gender sensitisation of justice sector actors, the lack of timely medico-legal examination, the lack of sentencing discretion of judges and the lengthy trial periods due to overburdened judges and courts," he told The Daily Star newspaper.
Huda feared the introduction of the death penalty would not address the real barriers.
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