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     Volume 4 Issue 33 | February 11, 2005 |

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Cover Story

to Grisly Tales


They are descriptions attributable to medieval savagery. Young girls, women and children being seared with hot irons or metal instruments, beaten with rods or wooden planks, skulls cracked by heavy blows, skin slashed by sharp knives. The stories of torture are endless at the One-stop Crisis Centre (OCC) at Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH). They are of the countless number of domestic workers who managed to escape the clutches of their torturers and have been brought to the Centre for medical treatment. What is more horrifying is that the torturers are not your typical criminals on the street but educated, middle class citizens, respected in society. Although initially arrested, with cases filed against them under the formidable Prevention of Women and Children Repression Act 2000, most of them go scot-free because of a flawed legal system that has enough loopholes for these privileged culprits.

The latest victim of this savagery across the country is only 15 years old. Fancy Begum had been working as a maid at a house in Mohammadia Housing Society. While getting back home one day, she met a woman named Rosna who coaxed her into going to a nearby house.

As soon as she got into the house on 5/14 Salimullah Road, Shayesta Shajid, the mistress, and her brother, Miraj, locked Fancy up. "I begged them to let me go; but they wouldn't listen to me," Fancy says. Meanwhile, Rosna, the dalal, who lives on supplying young girls like Fancy to different houses in the neighbourhood, had disappeared. Fancy never saw her again.

Within four days, Fancy was beaten with a curtain rod. "They both (Shayesta and Miraj) beat me up that day because I had broken an expensive plate," she says.

In fact, that opened the floodgate of abuse and torture. "Given the vaguest excuse, they would slap me, punch me in the abdomen," she says, showing several bruise-marks on her body.

The most brutal and savage attack took place on August 5 last year when the mistress and her brother hit her on the head with a big stick. "Blood started to ooze out; I cried for help and when the neighbours came, the Begumsahiba told them to back off," says Fancy. "She is our maid and we will do with her whatever we want to," Shayesta Shajid, herself a mother of two, told the neighbours.

For Fancy, things got even worse after the incident. Whenever she broke anything while cleaning or dusting, Miraj would slap her or pull clusters of her hair out as punishment. Apart from this medieval form of torture, both the brother and sister scalded her with a smouldering khunti (kitchen utensil). Fancy's entire body bears the marks of burn and torture.

Fancy was never given any medicine or taken to a doctor. She shows the gaping, infected wound on her left shoulder.

Then, on January 24, they decided to get rid of her. "That day, Miraj threatened me several times and told me that they would kill me," Fancy says.

She continues, "They tied a piece of cloth over my eyes, sealed my mouth with tape so that I couldn't shout and took me to a rickshaw."

Fancy did not have any idea where the rickshaw was heading because she was forced to bend her head down in between the abuser-duo. When they reached Hazaribagh, on the Buriganga, they pushed her onto the riverbank.

When the torturers were gone, perhaps thinking she was dead, Fancy freed herself and walked up the edge to the street.

Severely injured and lost, Fancy walked down Hazaribagh where she was rescued by a group of patrolling policemen.

Very few people will remember the battered face of eight-year-old Yasin after he was rescued by police. When he was brought to Motijheel thana on June 26, 2004, his mouth was bleeding and his body bore grotesque marks of torture. Shockingly, his assailants were Ahsan Sarfur Noor, a deputy secretary and Rahima Begum, a lecturer of Bangla at Tejgaon College.

Yasin had been brought by an uncle to work for a house in Shahjahanpur Railway Colony. He was made to do all kinds of domestic work and could only go to bed at around 12 am or 1 am. If he got up a little late, the child used to be beaten by Rahima Begum and her older son. A simple mistake would provoke the wrath of the mistress who would use heated iron rods to scald him. When Yasin screamed, she would burn his anal passage with a lighted mosquito coil. Yasin was fed only once a day and if he asked for more food, the older son would try to throttle him. The son would punch him in the face, kick him in the chest and sometimes lift him up high and throw him on the floor.

Such accounts from a little child should have been compelling enough for a speedy conviction. Yasin had been taken to the OCC, treated and then sent to BNWLA's shelter. But Yasin's father, a poor van driver, petitioned for his son's release. It is quite probable that the accused's family paid him off to do this. Thankfully, Yasin's testimony has been taken by the OCC lawyers. Even so, the accused mother and son were released on bail.

The case is pending and the judgement is due to be given by next month.

Twelve-year-old Hasna from Gulmuda village in Nilphamari, used to work for a household in Kakrail. The mistress of the house, Annie, a kindergarten teacher, and her eldest university-going daughter, Urmi, would mercilessly beat her for the most trivial reasons.

"They used to cut my hair or burn my skin with a heated khunti or just slash me with a da," says Hasna, who bears numerous injury marks all over her body. According to Hasna, it was Urmi who was the most vicious and did not stop her attacks in spite of pleas from Urmi's father who tried to stop her. Luckily for Hasna, a new darwan had started working for the apartment building and with his help she escaped.

Later a case was lodged at the Ramna thana by Sub-Inspector Abdullahil Baqui, interestingly, the same officer who had filed Mostakina's case.

Hasna's torturers -- Annie and Urmi -- were arrested, but later the mother got bail. On Monday, February 7, the court ordered Hasna to be handed over to 'safe custody' as asked by Sub-Inspector Abdullahil Baqui's prayer. Already, Hasna's father has petitioned for custody of his daughter. Hasna kept pleading that she go back to BNWLA's shelter but her pleas fell on deaf ears. Once out of BNWLA's shelter home, chances are that a 'compromise' will be made and the culprits will go scot-free.

Although sexual abuse of domestic workers is very common, very few cases get reported, while even fewer lead to convictions. Social stigma and poverty are big deterrents for victims to seek justice. But even when they do seek help from the law, legal loopholes and corruption of individuals having key roles in the legal process, leave the victim with nothing but memories of their trauma.

It is obvious that Tahera (not her real name), 20, has not yet recovered from the trauma of months of sexual abuse by her employers' sons and their friend. She keeps forgetting things and ends up sobbing every time she tries to explain what had happened to her.

"I used to work in a big building in Malibagh for Bibi (meaning the mistress of the house). They kept me locked up there for three months. Bibi's sons, Rajib and Shajib, used to do bad things to me. Often they would take me to their friend Ronnie's house and all of them used to do bad things. I used to scream and tell them I cannot take anymore. They would then tear out my hair and bang my head on the wall. Bibi would beat me with a cane. They didn't give me enough food . . . I was so weak."

At one point, Tahera became so traumatised that she stopped talking altogether and would just sit listlessly. The torturers decided that she was not of much use anymore and so let her go. People informed Tahera's brother and sister-in-law and they quickly brought her home. They found her battered, disoriented and with no clothes on. Tahera's brother filed a case.

But on August 23, 2004, the court gave a shocking judgement -- the accused (one of the brothers) was declared innocent. He had not even had to spend a single day in jail for he was granted bail by the High Court.

BNWLA's lawyer, on Tahera's behalf, has appealed to the High Court to reverse the verdict of innocence.

It took three years for 18-year-old Noorjahan to escape from her employer's house in Badda. From the very beginning Noorjahan's employer, Baby Begum, would beat her up at the slightest mistake.

"If, say, I broke a glass by mistake or was late in doing something, she would hit me with a boti, hot khunti -- anything she found in front of her," says Noorjahan.

Noorjahan's teeth are broken from strikes of a rolling-pin for making not quite round rotis -- the scar on her eyebrows are from being hit by a wooden plank; her lips are misshapen from being pulled by pliers.

"Sometimes Baby Begum's husband and kids would try to stop her from hitting me. She would then take me to a room and hit me."

Noorjahan, who does not know anyone in Dhaka, was scared that she would get trafficked. But when the brutality reached unbearable levels she knew she had to escape. With the help of the landlady's daughter-in-law, Noorjahan managed to flee her torturer's grasp.

Noorjahan's case's argument in court is already completed and the judgement will be given possibly this month.

Banu, about 20, came to Dhaka for work when she found out that her husband was already married with children. She ended up in Khilgaon in a household where the mistress, Runu, and her adult son began their sadistic torture on her.

"They beat me with sticks and hammers. The blows would crack my skull, but they never gave anything to heal the wounds. Once Runu hit me with a wooden pan (used for making roti) and my head was bleeding." The next door neighbours informed the police and Banu was rescued.

Fortunately for Banu, the plaintiff for her case is a lawyer of BNWLA working on behalf of the OCC. This significantly increases the chances of a conviction. Usually when a victim is rescued, the police try to find a guardian who will file the case. If no guardian is available, the police can act as plaintiff or allow a human rights organisation to file the case. The latter is preferable, as it is not uncommon for the police to become 'biased'. In Mostakina's and later Hasna's case, the primary investigation seems to have played a role in weakening the case. The common practice is to take the victim out of the human rights organisation's shelter into the custody of a guardian. This gives the accused the opportunity to bribe their way out, starting with the police official who will investigate the case, to the victim's family.

In Hasna's case, the sub-inspector, Abdullahil Baqui, made her the plaintiff, which is not legal as she is a minor. Thus a complicated legal system and the accused's influence as well as affluence make sure that victims of such brutality do not get justice.

When a case goes to court, the appointed Public Prosecutor (PP) will assess it and decide if it should be taken to court. It is the PP who will argue the case in court. The human rights organisation lawyer can only assist the PP and can speak in court only if the PP gives permission.

"This is a big constraint for us," says a human rights lawyer, "unless the victim gives an 'okalotnama' or permission for us to represent him/her we do not have the right to say anything." So if the PP becomes biased and gives no objection to bail, then the court will let the culprits go. "If the PP is honest and not biased then most of the judgements will be in favour of the victim," she adds.

There are innumerable reasons for a case to fizzle out even though the physical evidence of abuse is obvious. When a case is filed at the thana, the Investigating Officer (IO) is supposed to determine the truth of the complaint. If the IO decides that the facts are right, a charge sheet will be issued against the accused; and if he says the facts are false (as in Mostakina's case) the IO can give a Final Report that basically means case closed.

With 12-year-old Hasna Hena, it took 10 months for the police-report to come in when normally it should have taken a maximum of four months.

The Investigation Officer or the Public Prosecutor becoming 'biased', the victim and her family agreeing to compromise with the culprits in exchange of money, the delay in the legal process itself and the limited power given to human rights organisations -- all contribute to a denial of justice.

A place where the victims can seek refuge is the One-stop Crisis Centre (OCC), a government-run project funded by the Danish government. The first step is of course to heal the ghastly wounds and physical trauma caused by the beatings. The OCC is equipped with doctors and medical staff to make sure that the victims get proper medical attention. The next step is to ensure that the criminals are brought to book. The OCC is assisted by the BNWLA to provide legal aid and counselling, and to provide shelter to the victims. The BNWLA even offers vocational training to them so that they can reintegrate into society. In spite of such well-intentioned measures, the OCC's efforts are time and again frustrated because of the complicated legal system that often offers little respite for the tortured.

The government's OCC project can only be effective if the legal loopholes of such cases are removed. OCC cases should be given special consideration, making it mandatory for a victim to be in its custody until the victim has given testimony and the charge sheet against the accused is issued. OCC lawyers must also have the right to represent victims in court so that there is less possibility of officers or the PP becoming prejudiced. These cases must also be dealt with speedily as, the more time it takes, the greater the possibility of the victim's agreeing to an out-of-court settlement.

But why are domestic workers particularly vulnerable? One major reason is that they are 'invisible', with no organisation to represent them and are not registered as part of the work force. They are completely at the mercy of their employers and a brutal feudal system where employers feel they are superior to their domestic workers and so have the right to do whatever they want with them. Apart from the incidents of systematic, sadistic torture, in many instances the domestic worker does not get enough to eat and little or even no pay. This kind of modern day slavery is perpetuated by society's tacit acceptance of class discrimination. There is an implicit conspiracy of support among individuals of the privileged classes. In almost every household that employs domestic workers, there are incidents of verbal or physical abuse. It is just a matter of degree. Sometimes it may be in the form of a slap or verbal humiliation. At other times it gets more violent and brutal. Some of us feel outraged by the contempt and injustice meted out to people who essentially make our lives easier and more comfortable. Very few of us stand up for them and stop our family-members even when they are committing these crimes right before our eyes.

The disconcerting truth is that many employers will continue to mistreat and torture their domestic help. Right at this moment, some child or some woman, somewhere is being brutally beaten or maimed with an iron rod, or a heated utensil or a rolling-pin or some other object. They are all isolated cases but eerily similar. The pattern of violence points to a social malaise going out of control. It also demonstrates that unless these criminals, who walk around in the guise of respectability, are exposed publicly and are punished by the legal system, there is no hope for thousands of hapless domestic workers trapped within the sadistic web of their perverted employers.

A Miscarriage of Justice

In May of last year, Mostakina, a 10-year-old girl working as a domestic help for a doctor couple, was rescued from their Shahbagh home badly beaten after a neighbour called the police. Her arms burnt, body bruised and face bleeding, Mostakina was admitted to Dhaka Medical College Hospital's (DMCH) One-stop Crisis Centre (OCC). A case was filed against her perpetrators under the Prevention of Women and Children Repression Act 2000. After receiving treatment, Mostakina was taken to a shelter home of Bangladesh National Women Lawyers' Association (BNWLA).

The media played the story for a few days. Mostakina's wounds were visible on television. The pictures of her employers, Dr ABM Jamal of Mitford Hospital and Dr Fatema Doza of DMCH, after their arrest, were splashed across newspapers.

On June 2, Mostakina's father, Bashir Ahmed, came to see her at BNWLA and demanded justice for his daughter. He was satisfied with her condition at BNWLA's shelter, he said, but, four days later, he returned and applied for custody.

The next day, Dr Jamal, innocent according to Mostakina's testimony, was released on bail. On June 24, she was handed over to her father's custody.

On July 7, Mostakina signed an affidavit stating that her initial testimony, in which she had accused Dr Doza of torturing her, was false. She had fallen on the iron while Doza was ironing, Mostakina said, and her other cuts and bruises were the result of falls back home. Dr Doza only scolded her sometimes when she was very naughty, claimed Mostakina. Her father later sent a prayer to the law ministry seeking a compromise in the case.

The Final Report, filed by Sub-Inspector Baqui on August 31, cited "mistake of fact". Dr Fatema Doza was released soon after.

Had the case continued, Mostakina's perpetrator, for the "simple injury" committed with a "blunt weapon" -- an iron -- would have received between seven years' and life imprisonment under Section 4(ii)(b) of the Prevention of Women and Children Repression Act 2000. The case, however, did not get that far due to a number of factors.

At the bail hearing of the accused, no investigation report was presented by the IO. The report, which was supposed to be ready within 14 days of the arrests, was submitted four months later. Moreover, the medical reports undermined the seriousness of her injuries by stating them to be "simple in nature". Despite all the pictures and video shots taken of Mostakina badly wounded the day she was rescued, her injuries were put under a bailable category. No one stood up for Mostakina in court. That is, no one contested the bail plea of her abusers.

BNWLA's position on the case is that they were not allowed to represent Mostakina as they had wished and so they did not have the authority to fight for her. Instead, the policeman who had rescued her, Sub-Inspector Baqui, filed the case as the plaintiff and her father soon took custody. More importantly, say officials of BNWLA, what can anyone do if the victim herself does not want justice?

Along with the bindings of an inefficient system and an unsympathetic society, Mostakina was trapped in her own web of poverty and helplessness. The girl, who had testified against her torturers less than two months ago, was forced to take back her statement, along with her demand for the punishment of her abuser.

Mostakina's fight for justice came to an end in little over three months. Soon after, newspapers carried reports of Putul, Nupur and other abused domestic help, some who were even killed. Their cases did not fare any differently, and neither will those of Hasna or Fancy, or the many others who will continue to become victims if the current system -- legal and social -- prevails, predict their lawyers.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2005