03/08/2011, 00.00
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Power games of tribal and official authorities behind suicide of raped Christian girl

by Nozrul Islam
The girl, aged 14, was raped by nine men a year ago. The police arrested a local committee to which the girl's father had turned to seek justice. The tribal ruling provided for the payment of a sum to the family. The parish priest jailed for having mediated, rapists still at large.

 Dhaka (AsiaNews) - Mardi Serafina, a Christian from the Santals tribe, was only 14 when she committed suicide. Left alone in the house, she dosed herself with kerosene and set herself on fire, four days later, on February 21, she died due to burns. A year ago, on April 4, she had been raped by nine men from her village. Her father, on the advice of the village leaders, did not lodge a report with Bangladeshi authorities but instead, resorted to a local Christian "court". A year later a “friendly” accord was reached which provided as punishment for rapists the payment of a sum of between 1400-1500 euro and a forced marriage for the girl.

But the issue was never properly resolved. In fact it emerges that Serafina decided to set herself on fire - a common practice in Bangladesh - in response to certain events that occurred after the agreement. Her father on having received the money, lodged it in the name of the girls’ sister. In addition, one of the culprits who would have married her to repair the shame she had suffered, refused when he discovered that no law required him to do so. The paradox continues: after the death of Serafina, the parish priest of the village together with the men of the tribal committee who had negotiated the sum to be paid were arrested by police, while the rapists roam free. A story like many others, in Bangladesh, as a source for AsiaNews says twho asks to remain anonymous. But one that lifts a veil on numerous episodes of "do-it-yourself justice”, related to tribal authorities, to which people prefer to go rather than contacting the police and official authorities.

"Among the Santals of the village - says the source - there are two committees, one Catholic Christian and one non-Christians who are competing for control. When the non-Christian committee heard of the episode, it reported the other committee to the police, saying they had acted illegally, forcing the girl to commit suicide because she had not received justice, or recognition of her dignity. Following the indictment, 11 people were arrested, including the village priest who had acted as a liaison in the delivery of money to the family. "

These are the facts. But according to the source, "the situation is really far more complex. First, the rapists are still free and nobody has dealt with them. On a strictly legal level, the father and the committee that established the framework were wrong. But there are far from negligible reasons. I’m not referring to the specific case, as much as similar cases. For centuries - the source said - traditional authority has governed the lives of these peoples, the Santals as well as others. It has held up for the better or worse, because sometimes the judgements expressed are close to modern culture, others are not. Perhaps the best choice - according to the source - would be to discern what cases can be left to local courts, rather than abolish them altogether. " Because abolishing this authority "means to erode the culture of these peoples from within."

"Another point on which everyone is silent – continues the source – is the reality is that nobody trusts the police and the criminal courts [official] in Bangladesh. Everyone knows that going to the police with such a case means paying considerable sums. The court and the judges decide in favour of those who have more money. " So this is another reason why the village leaders and priests often advise the victims of any crime to appeal to local authorities, to hope in a minimal form of justice.

This mentality "has its flaws - the source points out - but it is not by throwing away an entire tradition of a people that we can find the solution. Eliminating these institutions all of a sudden, there is a risk of causing serious damage to the internal balance of these peoples. Instead we should really focus on the police and the judiciary and the workings of a corrupt system. "
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