Cross-examination of rape victims: A mental torture
Jerin Rahman, a pretty but meek schoolgirl, is full of dreams. Why not? After all she is a good student. Her mother wants to achieve through her what she could not do in her student life. But one day, some local goons shattered all of their dreams.
The wayward youths who had long been teasing Jerin (not her real name) picked up her on her way to school and gang-raped her in an abandoned house of Mohammadpur area barely six months ago.
Upset, Jerin's parents filed a case with a Women and Children Repression Prevention special court seeking justice -- also only to witness another humiliation.
During the trial, the defence lawyer asked Jerin a volley of insensitive questions what she found indecent. In a crowded court, the lawyer asked the distressed girl to describe how she was raped.
At one stage of the continuing trial, Jerin became mentally ill and attempted to commit suicide.
Jerin, who was a student of class IX when the worst thing happened to her, never visited her school since then.
Another girl, Hasna Banu (name changed to protect privacy) from Manikganj fell victim to a rapist, Rahim Miah, a few months back. Hasna Banu filed a case against Rahim, seeking justice. During the trial, the teenager became mentally ill and began considering herself guilty of the rape.
“I've been harmed physically, socially due to the rape. But the way the defence counsel asked me obscene questions it was more harmful and disgraceful for me. Now I rather wish to die. It's a sin to be born as a girl,” Hasna says.
Undoubtedly, rape is the most terrible thing for a woman. Due to rape, a woman is harmed not only physically and socially, but also mentally as the victim is haunted by trauma. Her bahaviour changes and she starts hating herself and distrusting others.
Ishrat Jahan Bithi, a psychologist of Bangladesh Rehabilitation Centre for Trauma Victims, says, “After being raped, a woman develops a number of psychological problems along with physical problems. She loses her confidence all together. She is embarrassed when she is asked filthy questions in court. In such a situation, a victim may even try to commit suicide.”
Kaniz Fatema, programme officer of human rights organisation Odhikar, says, “It's a legal process that in a rape case the defence lawyer will question the victim. But, in court such indecent questions are asked and gestures and made in presence of many that mentally devastate a victim. In many cases, many victims withdraw their cases to avoid this type of unwarranted humiliation.”
In the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act, 2003, a section, 'Trial in camera', has been included so that during cross-examination the victim does not face humiliating and uneasy situation. Under this section, the victim is supposed to be questioned in a closed room in presence of only the judge and the lawyers from both sides. And the victim's statement is recorded and heard again, if necessary.
Section 20(6) relating to the trial process of the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act, 2003 states that the trial proceedings of the crime can take place in a closed room under section 9 of the law.
“But the trial in camera section is hardly practiced,” says Farida Yasmin, deputy director (Law) of Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) and a Supreme Court lawyer.
She says, “The questions defence lawyers ask the victims are very shameful, disgraceful, humiliating and objectionable. In most cases, defence counsels intentionally ask obscene questions to get some sort of pleasure. They also try to prove the victims as characterless by diverting the cases to other directions. Since the cross-examinations take place in front of many people, victims feel humiliated and get demoralised. Some victims even commit suicide.”
She says, “In court, efforts are made by the defence lawyer to find the sexual history of the complainant. To win the case, the defence lawyer asks irrelevant questions one after another. The raped woman is asked how many males raped her, if she tried to resist at that time and if she got any pleasure. This is how the woman is re-raped by the court.”
Lawyer Salma Jabin, coordinator of the litigation unit of Ain o Shalish Kendra, says till now there has been no enforcement of the 'trial in camera' section. She emphasises the amendment of the law for imposing some restrictions on questioning in court.
Bangladesh Mohila Parishad general secretary Ayesha Khanam says, “In court, lawyers torture women time and time again with their filthy words. This type of harassment in the trial proceedings is the reflection of gender insensitiveness and perversion of all concerned. Everyone must change this mentality.”
From the psychological perspective, the questioning of victims in court about rape is very damaging and inhuman, says Dr Mahmudur Rahman, chairman of Dhaka University's psychology department. “A victim never has the mental strength to speak up standing in courts. This process of questioning in courts of our country is inhuman.”
Eminent lawyer Anisur Rahman, also a teacher of Stamford University in Dhaka, says, “If the court atmosphere is not friendly, the victim will be in an uncomfortable situation in describing the incident. Restrictions should be imposed on cross-examinations by lawyers by amending the rape-related laws.”
He says, “In court, defence lawyers ask such questions that are irrelevant in many cases. The lawyers try to make the whole environment juicy to be relished by perverted people and that is unfortunate.”
Anisur Rahman lays emphasis on change of mentality of the lawyers, having separate courts for trying rape cases, full enforcement of the 'trial in camera' section, imposing some restrictions on questioning and appointment of female public prosecutors and assistant public prosecutors to conduct rape cases.
Rehana Sultana, a lawyer of Bangladesh Mohila Ainjibi Parishad, says under the Witness Act of 1872, a lawyer has the right to ask any question to prove any incident. But, a lawyer should not cross the limit of decency by asking obscene and irrelevant questions. 'Trial in camera' section is not enforced due mainly to lack of clear idea about human rights law among lawyers.
About enforcement of the 'trial in camera', she says, “The judges and lawyers must have a clear idea about law and the lawyers for victims should apply to court for having 'trial in camera'.