DHAKA - At least sixteen people were facing the death penalty in a trial that started Thursday over the gruesome death of a young Bangladeshi woman that sparked protests and government promises of tough action.
Nusrat Jahan Rafi, 19, was set on fire in April after allegedly refusing to withdraw claims of sexual harassment against the head teacher of the Islamic seminary she attended.
She was lured onto the seminary rooftop in the southeastern town of Sonagazi, doused in kerosene and set alight, prosecutors say. She died five days later, triggering countrywide outrage.
The 16 people indicted -- including the teacher -- could face the death penalty if convicted. All defendants pleaded not guilty, while eight of the accused told the court that police forced them to sign written statements confessing involvement in the murder.
A special tribunal opened the trial Thursday at a crowded courtroom in the southeastern Feni district, with the first testimony by Rafi's elder brother Mahmudul Hasan Noman who filed the case.
Noman -- one of 92 people due to testify -- described the killing in the court, saying the murder could have been avoided if police had acted upon Rafi's harassment complaint.
The trial is expected to finish in six months, but Noman has urged the court to fast-track the hearings.
"Several defendants have alleged they were tortured and given electric shocks to sign confessional statements," defence lawyer Giasuddin Ahmed told AFP, adding the case has become "politically motivated".
Rafi had gone to police in March to report the alleged harassment. A leaked video shows the then district police chief registering her complaint but dismissing it as "not a big deal".
The police official was later dismissed and arrested early this month for failing to properly investigate her allegations.
Police said at least five people -- including three of Rafi's classmates -- tied her up with a scarf before setting her on fire. The plan was to stage the incident as a suicide case.
Rafi suffered burns to 80 percent of her body and died on April 10. But she recorded a video before her death, repeating her allegations against the head teacher.
Rights groups are closely monitoring the case as it came amid a spike in the number of rape and sexual assaults reported in Bangladesh.
They have said "a culture of impunity" is partly to blame for rise in sexual violence in the country.
According to Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, a women's rights group, only three percent of rape cases end in convictions.
It said about 950 women were raped in Bangladesh last year.