They move from one place to another, they cannot stay in a place for long. A perpetual fear haunts them; they feel stalked all the time. Wherever they go, they feel that they are followed, and like a constant companion, it never leaves them.
Iti and Bithi lost their parents five months ago by the bullets of local goons' guns. One of them is the lone witness of their parents' murder. Bithi saw the criminals open fire and spray bullets into their father and mother in their own house.
Iti was in another room in the apartment at the time of the incident. Soon after the murder they did not really know the significance of witnessing a murder with one's own eyes. In the aftermath of the incident that made the sisters orphan, law enforcers claimed success in capturing the main culprits and assured the victims of safety.
Before the sisters could get over their sorrow, they found that some of the arrestees of the murder case were freed on bail. Once out of jail, the prime accused had become ferocious – for him, the only way to get acquitted of the case was to blind the eyes that witnessed the killing. Murderers went mad in search for witnesses.
Since some of the alleged murderers were given bail, the two orphan sisters have been trying to hide themselves from the eyes of the perpetrators, shifting addresses in the houses of relatives or acquaintances.
On March 24, Rubel, the prime accused, shot Sadequr Rahman and Romana Nargis dead as they refused to marry Iti off to him. The murder took place at their residence in the city's Kalachadpur.
It is really frightening for the girls when only five months into the killing, two out of the four accused in the double murder case – namely Altaf Hosssain Altu (Rubel's maternal uncle, allegedly supplier of the weapon) and Mohammad Mohuddin Azad (Rubel's brother-in-law, alleged provider of shelter to the killer) – were freed on bail. Since their release, the two have allegedly been intimidating the witnesses and their family in whatever way they can.
At a time when the state should be helping the sisters to overcome the trauma of witnessing their own parents’ death, the sisters are running for their own life. “We receive numerous phone calls every day asking us to put a halt to the case and resolve the matter outside the court,” says Bithi, adding, “Otherwise, they threaten, we will have to see worse days.”
Family sources say that, even though he is in prison, Rubel is trying his best to resolve the case through arbitration. And inside the jail, Rubel requests fellow miscreants to bully the sisters whenever they come out on bail.
The matter has gone to such an extent that a High Court bench has recently directed the police to provide security to Iti and Bithi. Though the two sisters were lucky enough to get the media attention to finally have the HC beside them everyone is not so lucky. Witnesses to criminal offences are the worst sufferers in the country. It is the witnesses who become the first target of the criminals. There are numerous instances where witnesses have been murdered. Naturally, they do not go to the court out of the fear. Many cases cannot even be initiated in more than 10 years, due to absence of witnesses.
Public prosecutors and criminal law experts say that over 60 percent of criminal cases face difficulty due to the absence of witnesses, creating a huge backlog at the court. Till January this year over 15 lakh cases have been pending with the lower courts; a parliamentary sub-committee report reveals.
No official estimate is however available to show exactly how many criminal cases could not be proved for lack of witnesses. Neither the government nor the non-government organisations can come up with a research or a survey on the issue. According to newspaper reports there are cases that see no end as the witnesses are in a perpetual state of fear to appear at the witness box. In almost all cases witnesses are threatened by the criminal both directly and indirectly, hindering the investigation and prosecution process.
The law hardly deals with the safety of witnesses. Ironically, in some cases the law allows the arrest of a witness following order from court. Section 503 of the Penal Code defines criminal intimidation with a wide description but lacks required provision for the protection of witnesses.
“If there was a law, these sisters might not have suffered so much,” says Advocate Salma Ali, executive Director of Bangladesh National Women's Lawyer Association (BNWLA), a human rights organisation. Her organisation has worked for the draft of such a law at the directive of the law ministry. Law minister Shafiq Ahmed has also assured the formulation of a new law to save witnesses.
“A victim or witness, for instance, the victim sisters of Gulshan double murder, requires to be protected by the state. The best mechanism to ensure this is the formulation of a full-fledged victim-witness protection act,” Advocate Ali says. She says that the victims and witnesses not only require protection but also shelter, social, psychological and legal counselling, and other support services.
Referring to United States’ law on victim and witness protection, Ali says that developed countries employ a 'protection officer' for the victim or witness for the period until the investigation and trial is completed. “Such initiative not only ensures protection to the victim but also helps to boost public confidence in the justice system and fair trial,” she says.
The HC directive has done little to change Bithi's plights, as the police have remained quite indifferent to the threat that she faces on her life. Ironically, all Iti and Bithi can do now against the criminals is file a general diary (GD) with the police station. Filing a GD hardly yields the desired result, especially when it comes to a case as serious as murder.
Iti and Bithi, however, have filed a GD with the city's Badda police station. It has helped the criminals further as they have got another point to charge them with, over cell phone. “One of them (the accused) followed me all the way to the police station. From a distant he kept staring at me for a long time without saying a word, I was really scared as I could read his mind,” Bithi, panic-stricken, says.