Dark Side of Our Sympathy

By Fardin Hasin for AlalODulal

In March 2016, a girl was brutally raped and murdered inside Comilla Cantonment. The crime was surrounded by a lot of mysteries, most of which are yet to be brought to light due to the authority’s unwillingness to do any proper investigation. People were quick to react; protests sprung up in both Dhaka and Comilla along with some other places. The hashtag #JusticeForX (I will not reveal her name here for reasons I am going to explain later) spread throughout Facebook; often complemented by cover photos depicting the words ‘Justice For X’ superimposed on the victim’s picture.

The bureaucratic circus that usually follows this sort of crimes came through this time too. The first autopsy said she wasn’t raped. This naturally outraged the public; pictures of the victim’s dead body had already circulated through the web. Adding this to the first-hand accounts of people who had seen the body, the general public perception held the autopsy report to be false.

The public outrage led to the body being exhumed for a second autopsy, the results of which are yet to be revealed to the public. The medical officials who had done the first autopsy were also given the task of doing the second. If indeed it was their fault the first time around, then why were they given the job a second time? And if it wasn’t their fault, then whose was it?

The circus didn’t end here. The victim’s closest relatives were repeatedly interrogated (read ‘harassed’) by the authority. The same questions were asked over and over again. The victim’s father was asked in a rather accusative tone about why he didn’t marry his daughter off early; she had reached the proper age (read ‘legal age’) for it. One of her brother’s friends was abducted by law enforcement officials in plain cloth and was returned after spending 16 days locked up in a room.

Not to mention the fact that the area where the crime took place looked suspiciously clean, suggesting evidence tampering.

But what really got me intrigued about the case was the media coverage. The media didn’t focus on the news at first, but when it noticed the online attention, it didn’t hesitate to join the bandwagon. All the details of the crime were scrutinized under a microscope, the statements from those in charge of the investigation were analyzed for incoherencies, and the lack of progress with the investigation was repeatedly reported.

Not that anything actually came out of it. The investigation is still stuck in the ruts, but the media is no longer so keenly focused on the issue. It has a newer batch of crisis to deal with. Anything that sells, apparently.

During the investigation into the rape and murder of victim X, several similar offences occurred in Bangladesh. These incidents didn’t get much online coverage, and the mass media didn’t pick up on it. This begs the question: does mass media only care about issues that the public already cares about? Or should its job be about bringing news to the public eye that would otherwise have remained in the dark? The injustice done to victim X should have been first reported by mass media and not facebook. Social media awareness is a good thing, but it isn’t a healthy substitute for mainstream news outlets.

The unwillingness or inability of mainstream media to report instantly on cases like victim X should raise a question about its effectiveness in Bangladesh. Considering the number of tv channels and newspapers we have, why should we have to look at our facebook news feed to know what’s wrong with Bangladesh? And why does the mass media stop reporting on these incidents as quickly as the public attention declines?

In Bangladesh, the culture of rape has evolved beyond mere ‘isolated’ incidents and as such it deserves a constant attention. Caring for victim X is a good thing, but she wasn’t the first to die and the way the law and order situation in our country is falling apart, she wouldn’t be the last. A lot of people compared victim X to a sister-like character, suggesting personal involvement in the justice process. That’s not always such a good thing.

Justice goes beyond our personal attachment to the victim. It is not, or at least it should be not, about our grief, nor should it be just about hanging the guilty. It should be about finding out the truth and taking actions based on that. In America, public outrage led to the development of things like Amber Alert. Why isn’t that the case here in Bangladesh? Why do we cry only for this victim X and the next, but don’t speak out to get the system reformed?

Instead of crying over a few victims, we need to have a deep self-reflection about our justice system. We need to think clearly about the effectiveness of the investigative methods employed in crimes involving sexual offense. And we need to think about a way to repair, or reform, this system.

On the question of media coverage, we have to ask whether the coverage given to rape victims is about injustice or is it about catering to public demand. Because printing and selling the victim’s name over and over again in a country where a lot of indignity and dishonor is associated with rape may not be very helpful to the victim nor the victim’s families. It often does more to let everyone know (and consequently judge) the victim’s identity than actual justice. This culture of blaming the victim must be changed, but it’s not going to be changed instantly. The media must take that in consideration.

Obviously, those who have suffered demand justice, but the prospect for that in Bangladesh is often hopelessly narrow, regardless of whether the victim comes forward or not. And when a victim does come forward to demand justice, she is shamelessly ridiculed and criticized, often by the very people who work for the justice system. This ordeal is often nearly as painful as the crime itself and this is one of the prime reasons why victims don’t want to come forward.

At this point, we need to shout out for a reformed justice system with fast, smooth and fair investigative processes, with separate provisions for cases involving sexual offense and a focus on maintaining the victim’s anonymity. There’s not much point in just mourning every other victim X that comes along.

Afterthought– The results of victim X’s second autopsy was released after I had already finished the article. Dr Kamoda Prosad Saha, who had been charge of both autopsies, gave out the following statement, “The body was highly decomposed so the cause of death could be determined by circumstantial evidences and further investigation.” Evidence of ‘sexual intercourse’ was indeed discovered this time, though the persons in charge couldn’t confirm whether it was forceful or not. The exact circumstances regarding the death are still as foggy as day one. The second autopsy seems to be nearly as unacceptable as the first one, and the activists, for crystal clear reasons, are not buying it.

Exhuming the body for a second autopsy after it has become highly decomposed seems to have become a routine in Bangladesh. I’m not a medical professional but I do know that autopsies aren’t supposed to be a hit-and-miss affair. Why did the doctors get the results completely wrong for a fresh dead body the first time, if they could get it right (read ‘a little less wrong’) for a highly decomposed body the second time? And how trustworthy are these ‘circumstantial evidences’?

The results of the second autopsy have hopefully caused a revival in media interest, though it’s nothing like the initial wave. It hasn’t quite stirred up the social media outlets either. It seems we like to shout out for justice when it’s the cool thing to do. Very few like doing so when nobody is listening.

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