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BANGLADESHI RAPE VICTIM IS CANED FOR `UNLAWFUL SEX’

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When Islamic clerics set up a village "court," Saher Banu thought she would see punishment of a man accused of raping her daughter. She was wrong.

Instead of convicting the man, the 13 priests sentenced the daughter to 80 lashes with a supple bamboo cane for having unlawful sex.Hazera Begum, 20, passed out after receiving 35 blows. The trial and punishment were witnessed by about 200 people, including women and children.

The self-appointed court found her guilty because she could not produce three male witnesses to support her allegation that she was raped one day when she went to the fields to pick vegetables.

Such courts have no legal standing, but their punishments are carried out. Fundamentalists are growing increasingly assertive in Bangladesh, where 90 percent of the people are Muslims.

Bangladesh's civil code is based on laws inherited from the British, who ruled the Indian subcontinent until 1947. But local imams - acting on their own when they hear of misconduct - are applying their interpretations of the ancient codes of Islam, the Sharia.

In remote villages, where most people are illiterate, clerics have far more influence than the police or judiciary.

Women's rights groups say at least 48 women have died in recent years after being convicted of violating the Sharia.

"It is difficult to get a clear picture because many incidents occur in remote villages and the victims do not report to police for fear of reprisals," said Ayesha Khanam, a women's rights activist.

Women accused of adultery are not the only victims. Clerics also have targeted voluntary agencies that promote literacy, health care and family planning - causes that fundamentalists say undermine the traditional role of women.

For Hazera, the torment continues. "Who is going to marry me? I've become a social outcast."