Features

Heroine in the dock

Bangladesh | A defender of women trafficked into prostitution now needs deliverance from jail time

Issue: "He's in," Sept. 22, 2007

On a humid evening in Kandupatti, Dhaka's colonial-era red-light district, a group of foreign visitors followed a woman on a tour of the cinder-block hovels of Bangladesh's prostitutes. Neighborhood men immediately recognized her as local activist Sigma Huda. They chased Huda and her guests, rocking and hurling bricks at their tour bus as it struggled to exit the labyrinthine streets.

Huda is no stranger to trouble. A Bangladeshi lawyer, she has long defended abused women in a Muslim country that is both grindingly poor and desperately corrupt. In recognition of her success, the UN appointed her its special rapporteur on human trafficking in 2004, a role that focuses on drawing worldwide attention to prostitutes-more than half of whom are women trafficked from countries around the world.

In Bangladesh Huda's helpless include women with melted faces. They are victims of acid attacks used to avenge their dishonor. Huda's outspokenness has won her enemies-and now she is paying for it with jail time-and perhaps even her life.

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Huda and her husband Nazmul, a former communications minister in Bangladesh's government, have been sentenced to prison in a large anti-corruption sweep that has seen the arrests of some 170 officials, including two former prime ministers who lead Bangladesh's main political factions.

In January factional fighting and irregularities led to cancellation of elections that are yet to be rescheduled. A military-backed caretaker government has since ruled under a state of emergency, virtually banning all political activity and sparking riots.

Some of its anti-corruption arrests, including those of Sigma and Nazmul Huda, seem designed to settle old scores rather than clean up local politics. The head of the Anti-Corruption Commission pays judges who hand down convictions, notes the watchdog Institute on Religion and Public Policy.

After two months on trial, the court convicted a sickly Huda-who had to appear once in court wearing a hospital gown-of bribery, as an accomplice to her husband. Her sentence is three years in prison while Nazmul will serve seven. A UN observer reported the verdict came down under heavy intimidation, with police and military inside and outside the court.

Imprisonment in Bangladesh is no cakewalk. Huda suffers from diabetes, heart trouble, and kidney failure, and her family says authorities have been loath to give her the advanced medical care she needs. Officials moved her to a hospital jail cell that is in some ways more taxing than the first: Scarce running water means the toilet does not flush.

Jailers and inmates must carry Huda up and down three flights of stairs on her way to court, her daughter Srabanti reports. Ironically, one of those helpers has been an inmate she once prosecuted for an acid attack on prostitutes.

Srabanti writes that painful water retention means she must make new blouses and kameezes for her mother as Huda "does not fit into her clothes anymore." As of early this month, even after the conviction, her family was not allowed to see her or deliver food to her.

Such treatment has outraged friends and colleagues in the West. They say it's ludicrous that a woman who vigorously exposed corruption among police and officials-often in trying to help trafficking victims-should now stand accused of the same. Janice Raymond, who was in the 1999 group chased out of Dhaka's red-light district, says Huda's prominent UN role probably spooked the government. "The government has been agitated about her ability to criticize them in international forums," said Raymond, a board member of the International Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.

Tempers were high that day eight years ago in Kandupatti. The trouble emerged earlier, when a local strongman began taking local prostitutes' earnings for "safe-keeping." The women protested. In turn, local men, including some of the prostitutes' customers, succeeded in having them evicted from the brothels onto the streets. Huda sought out the women to defend the illegal eviction-not prostitution itself-earning her death threats and the angry mob that chased her group. For years she "sloughed off" such dangers, Raymond said. Now, with failing health, the defender of the helpless needs deliverance herself.

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