by Cat Barton
SHARIATPUR, May 30, 2011 (AFP) - When Bangladeshi teenager Hena Akhter was raped by her cousin, their village council issued a fatwa ordering a public whipping as punishment -- 101 lashes for her, 201 for him.
Hena collapsed after 70 lashes and died six days later at home in the remote Chamta village in Shariatpur district, triggering a national outcry over the illegal penalty and the police cover-up that allegedly followed.
"The council used a wet piece of cloth with a knot at one end to whip her. There was nothing I could do to stop them," Hena's mother Aklema Begum told AFP as she recalled her 14-year-old daughter's fatal ordeal in January this year.
"My brother-in-law saw it. When Hena first fell over after 30 lashes, they made her stand up again and kept going. She couldn't speak or eat afterwards, and she was bleeding through her nose, ears and mouth."
Hena is buried in a simple grave next to her family's small mud and plank house in a village that has no electricity or running water and is a 30-minute walk through rice paddies from the nearest paved road.
Her death has highlighted Bangladesh's struggle to regulate fatwas, religious decrees normally issued by Islamic scholars.
They were banned in 2001, but earlier this month the Supreme Court in Dhaka ruled that they could be issued on personal and religious matters if they did not impose physical punishment.
Rights groups have criticised the latest ruling and said that villages far from Bangladesh's secular courts have always continued using fatwas to sentence people to whippings in defiance of any national law.
Hena's case shows there is a degree of sympathy for such punishments, particularly in rape cases, due to a "mindset that always blames the woman," said lawyer Salma Ali.
Ali, who is representing Hena's family in court, said that police, doctors and hospital staff colluded to conceal the real cause of Hena's death, which they knew was illegal.
An initial autopsy by local doctors found "no visible injury marks" on Hena's body and the first police report did not record the death as murder, instead claiming Hena was having an extra-marital affair with Mahbub Khan, 45.
"This was systematic violence against this girl," said Ali. "Why didn't the police record this case properly? Why didn't the hospital treat her properly? Who paid money to get this covered up?"
A second post mortem found Hena had died of internal bleeding and the local doctors and police are now under investigation for the attempted cover-up.
Khan and the seven-member village council who issued the fatwa have been arrested and are awaiting trial and Hena's family have been given 24-hour police protection after receiving death threats.
Reflecting rural Bangladeshis' widespread ignorance of their own rights and justice system, Hena's family said they had no idea that the village council did not have any legal authority to punish their daughter.
Access to justice is so limited outside of the capital Dhaka that up to 80 percent of disputes are resolved by village councils -- which are known as shalish -- said Falzul Huq of the Madaripur Legal Aid Association.
"Judiciary is very costly, time consuming and ringed with corruption," he said, adding there were two million cases pending at the country's courts.
"But (whipping) is illegal, and the law of the country should take care of it as they do not have the right to beat anybody or torture anybody in the name of shalish," Huq said.
In Hena's case, the village council that issued the fatwa included the wife of her rapist and his sister-in-law but no one with even basic training in Islamic law, leading human rights lawyer Sara Hossain told AFP.
Hossain, who is pushing for an outright ban, said the Supreme Court ruling has left a huge legal grey area by allowing fatwa on "religious issues", but leaving it up to local preachers to decide what this covers.
"The fatwa giver will say 'I'm not making anyone be whipped or caned. People are doing whatever they're doing based on what they feel, I just happen to have expressed a view'," she said.
In Chamta village, Hena's family say they wish they had known enough at the time to prevent her punishment, and that they are determined to fight for justice.
"Her memory is always with us, it is driving us," her mother said.