Rape has become a most pervasive crime against indigenous women in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and the perpetrators in majority of the cases are Bangalee settlers, lawyers and rights activists say.
The idea behind this is to create panic among indigenous women and thus force them to leave their homes and stay somewhere else. This makes it easier for the settlers to occupy their land.
Before the signing of the peace treaty between the government and the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti in 1997, rape was used as a weapon to suppress the indigenous community's movement for autonomy, said Samari Chakma, a lawyer and rights activist in Khagrachhari.
"But over the past few years, incidents of rape have increased to evict the hill people from their land," she told The Daily Star.
Between January and April this year, 15 cases of violence against indigenous women have been reported in the region. Of them, eight were rape incidents and two murders after rape, according to a report by Kapaeeng Foundation.
LAND OF FEAR
The foundation's 2013 report shows that between 2007 and 2013, some 175 incidents of violence against women took place in the three hill districts -- Rangamati, Khagrachhari and Bandarban. As many as 49 of them were rape and gang rape.
"Minor girls, particularly those below 18, are the most common victims. Many are murdered after rape," said Tuku Talukdar, convener of Narir Proti Sohingsota Protirodh Andolon, a Rangamati-based rights organisation. Young girls usually fall victim on their way to and from school or when they go to nearby bushes to collect firewood or bring their cattle home, added Tuku, also an advocate.
As a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult for women and young girls to come out of their homes alone, something they did without fear even five to six years ago.
And even as such violence against women rises, the perpetrators go unpunished or even unidentified.
Between January 2010 and December 2011, 22 cases were filed for rape in Bandarban, 36 in Khagrachhari and 37 in Rangamati. Trials in several cases have ended, but not a single accused was convicted, according to a study by the Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission.
"Most perpetrators have links with local Bangalee councils or influential political leaders of the Awami League, BNP and Jamaat. They often try to prevent the families from reporting to the police by settling the matter with money," said Tuku.
In other cases, victims do not report those because of the social stigma associated with it.
According to the Kapaeeng Foundation report, four of the eight rape incidents between January and April this year have been reported to the police.
Weak charge sheets, language barriers faced by the indigenous community at police stations and courts, where most of the officials are Bangalees, weaken the cases, according to lawyers.
Samari cited the example of a Tripura girl who, already overwhelmed by the trauma of recounting the assault, failed to properly relate the incident to the defence lawyer during cross-examination in the court.
This will certainly give the accused some benefit of doubt and may weaken the merit of the ongoing trial, lawyers said.
In some cases police do not take the complaints. In other instances, they write the first information report ignoring the victim's statement, said Tuku.
Then there is the lengthy legal process.
"The dates of hearing are set so far apart that the accused often get bail in the meantime and threaten the witnesses and the victims," said Shefalika Tripura, executive director of Khagrapur Mohila Kalyan Samity, an NGO that provides legal help to rape victims.
'IT'S ALL ABOUT LAND'
Nobomohan Tripura, whose mother was raped and killed in September 2009 over a land dispute, described how all the five accused have been threatening his family since.
"Four accused were arrested but they came out of jail after getting bail from the High Court. They have been threatening us to withdraw the case.
"They say I will meet an end like my mother if I do not comply," he said, adding that they cannot go near their land out of fear.
Shefalika of Khagrapur Mohila Kalyan Samity said, "Had there been conviction in at least one case, people would have received a message and refrained from committing such crimes."
Another problem cited by lawyers and rights activists is tampering with the medical report in many rape cases.
Both Samari and Tuku alleged that doctors in the hill districts have been ordered by the higher authorities to produce negative medical examination report in cases of rape by Bangalee settlers to prevent communal tension.
Samari gave the example of Sabita Chakma's case. The 30-year-old was raped and killed on February 15 this year, allegedly by three Bangalee sand collectors.
The medical examination report came out negative though Sabita's body was found almost without any clothes, said Somari.
Sanjib Tripura, residential medical officer of Khagrachhari district Sadar hospital where the examination was done, said all the tests were conducted as per the due procedures and reports were given based on the findings.
But he declined to speak about any particular case.
The troubles in the hills have a link with the non-implementation of the peace accord, according to Meghna Guhathakurta, a researcher and advisor of the CHT commission.
Because of the government's failure to keep its promise, Bangalee settlers have continued to occupy the land that once belonged to the indigenous community, she said, adding that there was no trust between the two peoples there.
"The issue of land grabbing has created this mistrust in the hills where sexual violence is part of the day to day conflict," she said.
Under the peace treaty, no one can buy, sell, lease or even transfer the ownership of land there without the prior permission of the CHT regional council. But the authorities have failed to ensure this.
Contacted, Rangamati police superintendent Amena Begum denied that police were reluctant to take rape case.
"There is a strict order that they must inform the SP or their senior officials whenever such an incident takes place. If we come to know of the incident from the media or any other sources, then the police officer is held accountable."
She, however, said attempts were often made by indigenous community leaders or Bangalee union chairmen or members to settle the rape cases out of court. "We are trying to build awareness to prevent this."