Bangladesh outlaws punishment by fatwa

A court in Bangladesh has outlawed punishments handed down in Islamic fatwas after a series of cases of women being beaten, caned and whipped for "offences" that village elders had judged them to have committed.

In a landmark human-rights finding in the country, the High Court ruled that such religious rulings must be ignored, and that those issuing them should themselves be punished. "Any person who issues or executes such an extra-judicial penalty must be punished for committing a criminal offence," said two judges Syed Mahmud Hossain and Gobinda Chandra Tagore.

The ruling followed several filings by human-rights organisations which highlighted the way in which women in the world's third-largest Muslim-majority nation were often brutally punished after being deemed guilty of adultery or having a child out of marriage. A number of women were punished simply for talking to people of another faith.

In one of the most notorious incidents, a 16-year-old girl was flogged 101 times when she became pregnant after being raped. The teenager, from the Brahmanbaria district in eastern Bangladesh, was punished after village elders decided she had acted immorally. The 20-year-old rapist was pardoned.

Campaigners have long argued that so-called village justice is a widespread and deeply ingrained problem in Bangladesh. Lack of education and knowledge about a person's rights, the feudal-like power of local leaders, and the willingness to cite Sharia law in order to take advantage of vulnerable individuals or groups, are all factors.

Shahdeen Malik, a human-rights campaigner and director of the school of law at Dhaka's BRAC University, said: "The cases of beatings, whippings and public humiliations of people, especially poor rural women, would be drastically reduced following this verdict. It states clearly that nobody has the power to inflict physical and mental torture to any person in the name of religion."