A spate of vigilante-style murders of rape suspects in Bangladesh has raised fears of possible extrajudicial killings amid anger over rising rape cases in the South Asian country.
At least three rape suspects have been found murdered in the past two weeks with a note hung around their necks confessing their crimes.
One of the bodies was found dumped in a village in the southwestern district of Jhalakathi on January 26.
Mahmud Hasan, chairman of Shaulakania Union – Bangladesh’s smallest local government unit, went running towards the fields when he was told there was a dead body lying in a paddy field outside Boltala village. The police were already at the scene when he arrived.
A note hung from the body’s neck, it read: “I am Sajal. I am the rapist of the [victim’s name]. This is my punishment.”
“The body was found lying face down. There was a wound near his left eye. It seemed like a bullet wound. But strangest was the note that hung around his neck,” Hasan told Al Jazeera.
“It felt strange and scary to see this happen in my area … but it also felt like justice,” he continued.
Sajal had been accused of raping a teenaged student at a madrasa in the Bhandaria sub-district
Just over a week before the discovery of Sajal’s body, police found another body with a possible bullet wound to the head in Savar, a district some 260km away from Boltala near the capital, Dhaka. A similar note tied around the neck read: “I am the prime accused in a rape case.”
The body was identified as Ripon, 39, a key suspect in the gang rape and murder of a female garment worker at the beginning of the year.
A third body, that of Rakib Molla, 28, the man accused of being Sajal’s accomplice, was found on February 1 near a brickfield in Jhalakathi. Molla’s body had multiple wounds, including one to the head.
The note around the body’s neck hinted strongly that vigilantes were behind the latest killing, this time, it seemed to be signed by the vigilante, using an “alter ego”.
It read: “I am Rakib who raped [victim’s name]. This is the fate of the rapist. Rapists be aware … Hercules.”
Who is killing these people?
Local police still have not turned up evidence in their search for the identity of “Hercules” or the people behind the murders, while the police headquarters in Dhaka have yet to launch an investigation.
“Local police are investigating. We don’t see any need for further investigation from headquarters. At this point, we are not even sure that the same person or the group is doing these murders,” Sohel Rana, Additional Inspector General of Police Headquarters, told Al Jazeera.
“This Hercules could be anyone,” he said.
Family members of two of those killed said they had been picked up by plain-clothed people before they were found dead.
Abul Kalam, Molla’s father, told Al Jazeera that after the rape allegations against Molla, he left the village for Nabinagar near the capital.
On January 25, Molla was drinking tea along with a friend when a black microbus stopped and picked them both up.
“His friend was later released and he told us that Rakib was picked up by the police. His mother tried to file a general complaint of a missing person but the police station didn’t take it,” Kalam said.
“His dead body was later found. I believe the police killed him,” he added.
Shamsun Nahar, Sajal’s wife, told Al Jazeera that her husband, who had been a friend of Rakib’s, left home after the rape allegations were made against him.
“On the night of January 22, he called me and told me that he was heading towards the port city of Chittagong. That was the last call. There was no trace of him until January 26 when we found his body near our village,” she said.
Ripon’s wife, Rikta Begum, said that on January 11 her husband was picked from his home in Ashulia near Dhaka by some plain-clothed people who identified themselves as members of detective branch (DB) of police.
“Six days later, we found him dead,” said Begum.
An 18-year-old female garment worker was found dead in her house on January 7 in Ashulia’s Berun area, hours after she had filed a case against Ripon and three others.
Police deny involvement
Shawkat Alam, inspector (Investigation) of Savar police station who is investigating Ripon’s murder, denied the possibility that the DB had any role in the murder.
“As far as we have found, Ripon went into hiding after there was a case filed against him for rape and murder,” Alam told Al Jazeera.
Mohammad Zahid Hossain, officer-in-charge of Rajapur police station who is investigating Rakib’s murder, said: “We are still investigating,” but ruled out the possibility that the plain-clothed individuals involved in Rakib’s disappearance and subsequent killing were policemen.
In the case of Sajal’s murder, the investigating officer suspects that a professional killer is behind it. “Sajal had a single wound in the head. He was probably shot in a point-blank range,” Gazi Fazlur Rahman told Al Jazeera.
Alarming number of rape cases
There has been an alarming rise of rape cases in the country, human rights activist Nur Khan Liton told Al Jazeera.
According to the data from Ain-o-Salish Kendra, a human rights body based in Dhaka, of which Liton is a former director, a total of 732 women and 444 children were raped in 2018 – a rise of 18 percent compared with 2017.
At least 79 rape incidents took place in January alone this year, among which 22 were gang rapes, according to a report by Bangladesh Mahila Parishad (BMP).
Between January 2014 and December 2017, a total of 17,289 cases of rape of women and children were recorded throughout the country, Asaduzzaman Khan, minister of home affairs told parliament in February last year. Nearly 80 percent of those cases are still pending.
“All of these incidents had happened during a time when there is serious discontent among the public about rape. The Subarnachar rape incident of a mother of four just after the general elections had enraged the country,” said Liton.
In a country where rape convictions are abysmally low, some people on social media have hailed “Hercules” as a “vigilante” who delivers justice that is often sorely delayed in Bangladesh.
Many referred to the case of Sohagi Jahan Tanu, a high-school student who was raped and murdered in March 2016 in Comilla. That case has made little headway despite public outrage and widespread media coverage.
Liton, the human rights activist, said the killing of four rape suspects within a span of just two weeks, three seemingly by vigilantes and the fourth in a gunfight with police in Chittagong on January 29, had raised eyebrows and made people question what had really happened.
“The recent killings naturally raise a lot of questions, especially considering the facts that the country has a long tainted record of extrajudicial killings,” said Liton.
“The government should launch proper investigations to probe these murders. No one should be allowed to be killed extrajudicially.”
Bangladesh’s government under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been criticised for a rising number of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.
Last year, over 200 people were killed extrajudicially within just a few months as part of a brutal crackdown on drug dealers.
Overall, 466 people were killed extrajudicially in 2018, the highest rate in the past six years in this country of nearly 160 million.