Bangladesh: University students' victory in sexual harassment case

WLUML Networkers
The High Court gave a landmark judgment today in the first application of its Sexual Harassment Guidelines pronounced on 14 May.
One year ago, in May 2008, four women students at Jahangirnagar University made complaints of serial sexual harassment against their teacher and the Chairperson of the Drama Department, Sanowar Hossain Sunny. The University appointed three separate inquiry committees, which examined witnesses and issued reports with clear findings against the teacher. During this period, the students continued to face threats and harassment.
In September 2008, the University announced that Sunny was ‘exonerated of all charges of sexual harassment as they had not been proved beyond a reasonable doubt’. Later the University also proceeded to pass orders of temporary expulsion against four of the women complainants, and two male students who had given evidence in their favour.

Prof Sirajul Islam Chowdhury and others filed a public interest petition challenging the University’s decision and actions. Later the victim-complainants and the two other students also became parties to the petition (Prof Sirajul Islam and others v Jahangirnagar University and others Writ Petition 9414 of 2008).

Today the High Court held that the decisions taken by the University to exonerate Sunny on the one hand, and to expel the students on the other, were both without lawful authority. It also directed the University to hold a fresh inquiry into the incident, with independent persons, on the basis of the new Guidelines on Sexual Harassment pronounced in BNWLA v Bangladesh . Citing judgments of the Supreme Courts of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, the Court held that corroboration was not always required to prove allegations of sexual violence, and further that the standard of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ could not be applicable in cases of this nature, relating to disciplinary inquiries regarding allegations of sexual harassment. The Court also noted that Jahangirnagar University authorities had failed ‘for reasons best known to themselves’ to adopt their own guidelines on sexual harassment, and therefore in the absence of any applicable law, the High Court’s new guidelines should be applied to any fresh inquiry.

A Division Bench comprising Justice Syed Mahmud Hossain and Justice Quamrul Islam Siddiqi passed the judgment today.

The writ petition was filed by eminent citizens Prof. Sirajul Islam Chowdhury and Kamal Lohani, and three human rights organisations, Ain o Salish Kendra, Nijera Kori and Kormojibi Nari.[1] Four women students of Jahagirnagar University who had made complaints of sexual harassment, and two others who gave evidence, were also joined as petitioners during the course of the hearing.

Sara Hossain, with Ramzan Ali Sikder, Ainun Nahar Lipi and Abantee Nurul appeared for the public interest petitioners. Ruhul Quddus Babu appeared for the students.