Despite death threats, nothing discouraged Nusrat Jahan Rafi from coming forward about how she had been sexually harassed by Siraj-ud-Doula, the former principal of Sonagazi Islamia Senior Fazil Degree Madrasa.
Nusrat disclosed the matter to the public in hopes for justice. Instead, the 11th grader was burned to death in April.
Siraj's crimes were also known to many more people, but no one dared to come forward or go to the authorities – the madrasa principal had been harassing female students for a long time.
At least 16-17 female students were sexually harassed by Siraj-ud-Doula, according to court sources who were involved with the trial that resulted in Siraj and 15 of his cohorts being sentenced to death.
The Business Standard talked to some of the victims who shared their experiences, on the condition of anonymity.
Once word spread around that Siraj harassed female students, girls at the madrasa stopped going to his office alone. Instead, they used to go in groups to protect themselves, said the victims.
A friend of Nusrat said at least six-seven of her classmates, including herself, were sexually harassed in the principal's room.
"We complained to our parents but most of them could not believe that a maulana could harass his students," she said.
Md Mostafa, a peon of the madrasa, said he saw the principal harassing several students, but could not tell anybody out of fear.
Though a few students and their parents complained against Siraj to the local authorities, no action was taken.
"I complained to the governing body of the madrasa but they did not care. After that, I complained to its chairman and the then acting additional district commissioner PK Enamul Kabir. He just sent a show-cause letter, but no punishment was served," said a father, whose daughter was harassed by Siraj.
When asked about this, former chairman of the madrasa governing body and an Additional District Magistrate PK Enamul Kabir declined to comment in this regard.
Mayor of Sonagazi Municipality Rafiqul Islam said in the last 18 years, there were many allegations of sexual harassment against Siraj-ud-Doula. "But every time he escaped justice with the help of the local influential people."
Local people said no one dared to raise voice against Siraj because of his political and financial power.
"We had nothing to do, we tried to protest but the principal and local politicians teamed up to silence us," said Khudista Khanam, a lecturer of Bangla department of the madrasa.
She said now, after the historic verdict by the court against Siraj and his followers, the madrasa can get back its dignity.
The incumbent principal Maulana Mohammad Hossain said the madrasa has formed a sexual harassment cell to prevent such crimes.
"We have formed a cell against sexual harassment. We set up several CCTV cameras on the campus – including my room – to prevent any crimes," Maulana Mohammad said.
The rise of Siraj
Sonagazi locals said Siraj-ud-Doula became active in politics as a member of the Islami Chhatra Shibir – the student wing of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami – in the 1980s.
Siraj joined as the principal of Sonagazi Islamia Senior Fazil Degree Madrasa in 2001. He was active in Jamaat's politics until 2016. But later, he distanced himself from Jamaat and joined hands with the upazila leaders of the ruling Awami League.
"After joining the madrasa, he established an empire of criminal activities through his followers. He controlled a gang of local goons," said Abdul Mannan, a member of the guardians' committee of the madrasa.
"There are several allegations of money embezzlement and sexual harassment against the principal, but with the help of some influential people, he escaped punishment," he added.
Several guardians of the madrasa students, on the condition of anonymity, told The Business Standard that local Awami League leader Ruhul Amin – also the vice-president of the madrasa committee – helped Siraj to continue his activities and prevented any action against him.
Former councillor of Sonagazi Municipality Abdul Mannan said, "Siraj had been expelled from a madrasa of Feni Sadar on allegations of abusing a child before joining the Sonagazi madrasa. He had been also expelled from Rangamala Islamia Dakhil Madrasa of Noakhali before that on allegations of anomalies."
There were also allegations against him of embezzling money by establishing various organisations, including a multipurpose company. Several cases were filed against him for this.
"Siraj was arrested in at least four cases before. He was also charged with sabotage in a case filed with Feni Model police station. He also served jail terms in three other cases," said Jahangir Alam, a lawyer of the Feni court.
"I cannot imagine how a criminal like him became the principal of a madrasa," he added.