Bangladesh’s government has approved an amendment that would allow for the death penalty in rape cases, as anger grows in the South Asian country over incidents of sexual assault.
The amendment was approved at a weekly meeting of the council of ministers headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, cabinet secretary Khandker Anwarul Islam told reporters in a news conference on Monday.
Islam said the ministers approved the draft of the Women and Children Repression Prevention (Amendment) Bill, 2020 in the meeting held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The bill says anyone convicted of rape will be punished with death or “rigorous imprisonment” for life. The existing provision stipulates a maximum of life in prison for rape.
Law and Justice Minister Anisul Huq said a presidential declaration is expected on Tuesday for the new provision to come into effect.
The changes to the law were demanded by thousands of demonstrators across the Muslim-majority nation calling for more stringent punishments for the perpetrators of sexual assaults.
The country of 170 million people has witnessed unprecedented protests that erupted after a woman was stripped and sexually assaulted by a group of men in a remote southern village.
Police arrested eight suspects as a video of the assault went viral more than a month after the attack occurred at the victim’s home in Noakhali, nearly 200km (124 miles) southeast of the capital, Dhaka.
Days before the Noakhali video went viral, anger had already been brewing after several members of the Bangladesh Chhatra League – the student wing of the governing party – were arrested and charged with gang raping a woman in the northern town of Sylhet.
The demonstrators, mainly women students and activists who took to the streets in Dhaka and other cities last week, protested against the rising number of incidents of rape and sexual assaults reported in the media. They shouted “Hang the rapists” and “No mercy to rapists”.
It was the first time that Bangladesh had witnessed such large-scale protests against sexual violence over a prolonged period.
In a recent report, human rights group Ain o Salish Kendra said nearly 1,000 women were raped in the first nine months of the year – one-fifth of them being gang rapes – while 43 of the 975 victims were killed after being attacked.