DHAKA, BANGLADESH - A court in eastern Bangladesh sentenced the principal of an Islamic school and 15 others to death on Thursday over the killing of an 18-year-old woman who was set on fire for refusing to drop sexual harassment charges against the principal.
Judge Mamunur Rashid of the Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunal found Principal Siraj Ud Doula and the others guilty of either killing the woman or ordering her death in April.
The brutality of the death triggered nationwide protests. Tens of thousands of people attended Rafi's funeral prayers in her hometown, and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina pledged that her family would get quick justice.
All of the defendants, including a local ruling party member and some students at the school, were in the court in handcuffs during the reading of the verdict.
The principal, who had smiled as he was brought into the court, cried after the verdict was announced, local media reported. The defendants began shouting and screaming as they were taken away in a police van.
Defense lawyer Giasuddin Nannu said all 16 defendants would appeal the verdict.
The young woman, Nusrat Jahan Rafi, said she was lured to the roof of her rural school in Feni town and told to withdraw the charges by five people clad in burqas. When she refused, she said her hands were tied and she was doused in kerosene and set on fire.
Rafi told the story to her brother in an ambulance as she was taken to a hospital and he recorded it on his mobile phone. She died four days later with burns covering 80% of her body.
The violence shook Bangladesh, triggering protests and raising concerns over the plight of women and girls in the conservative Muslim-majority nation of 160 million people, where sexual harassment and violence are often unreported, victims are intimidated and the legal process is lengthy. Many avoid reporting to police because of social stigma.
Police also often show an unwillingness to investigate such cases and are accused of being influenced by local politics or bribes, according to human rights groups.
Days before Rafi was set on fire, she filed a complaint with police that the principal of her madrasa had called her into his office and repeatedly touched her inappropriately. Her family agreed to help her to file the complaint, which prompted police to arrest the principal, infuriating him and his supporters. Influential local politicians backed the principal.
Police told the court that the suspects told them during interrogations that the attack on Rafi was planned and ordered by the principal from prison when his supporters visited him. They said it was timed for daytime so it would look like a suicide attempt.