Dhaka In a landmark verdict, the Bangladesh High Court has ruled as criminal offence handing down of punishments like caning or beating to women in the name of 'fatwa' or Islamic decrees. "Any person who issues or executes such an extra-judicial penalty must be punished for committing a criminal offence," said a two-member bench comprising Judges Syed Mahmud Hossain and Gobinda Chandra Tagore. The bench said infliction of brutal punishment including caning, whipping and beating in local salish or arbitration by persons devoid of judicial authority constitutes violation of the constitutional rights. The court particularly directed the authorities concerned to take punitive action against the people involved in enforcing "fatwa" against women. The verdict came yesterday on writ filed by several rights groups. The court ordered the government, law enforcers and local government bodies, especially the municipalities and union councils, to take immediate measures against issuance or execution of extra-judicial penalties alongside providing the victims with security and protection. The verdict came nearly a year after preliminary hearing on when the court issued a rule asking the government and the police chief in particular to explain their failure to act in time and to comply with their legal and constitutional duties in taking effective measures to prevent the imposition and execution of extralegal penalties. In its verdict yesterday, the court asked the government to frame and adopt guidelines and orders for all the authorities concerned to report any information on the occurrence or likely occurrence of any such incident of extra-judicial penalties by any people or bodies in the name of arbitration, mediation and conciliation or fatwa. Earlier in 2001, another High Court bench comprising judges' Golam Rabbani and Nazmun Ara Sultana delivered a verdict declaring issuance and execution of any fatwa illegal and punishable under the Penal Code. An appeal was, however, preferred against the 2001 verdict and the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court stayed the operation of the verdict in the same year. The appeal is still pending with the Appellate Division. The leading rights groups filed the writ on public interest on the basis of newspaper reports and investigations by the petitioners into violence inflicted on women in the name of fatwa by local religious leaders and powerful corners. The US annual Report on International Religious Freedom last year said although Islamic tradition dictates that only 'muftis' or religious scholars were authorised to declare a fatwa, village religious leaders at times made declarations in individual cases. "Sometimes this resulted in extra-judicial punishments, often against women, for perceived moral transgressions," it read.