Eleven people serving life sentences for gang rape and murder in the 2002 Gujarat riots have been freed, Indian media reports said.
The 11 convicts in the Bilkis Bano case were released from jail in Gujarat’s Godhra city on Monday and the state government approved their application for commutation, reports said.
An anti-Muslim pogrom erupted in 2002 after a train carrying several Hindu pilgrims caught fire, killing 59 people. Hindu right-wing groups blamed local Muslims for the incident.
In days of retaliatory violence, nearly 2,000 people, most of them Muslims, were hacked, shot and killed in the western state, one of India’s richest. Hundreds of women were raped.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the state’s chief minister at the time and has been accused of not doing enough to stop the killings and also targeting human rights defenders fighting for the victims.
Bilkis Bano case
In one of the worst episodes of large-scale anti-Muslim violence on March 3, 2002 in Limkheda area of Dahod, Bilkis Bano was gang-raped and 14 people, including her three-year-old daughter Saleha, were killed by a Hindu mob. District in Gujarat.
Saleha’s head was crushed to death, the court said in its verdict. At that time, Bano was 21 years old and five months pregnant. She survives the massacre by playing dead and then loses consciousness.
The 11 men convicted were from Bano’s neighborhood, she later told prosecutors.
I can’t forget the night we met #bilkisbano At a relief camp, the robbers who first raped her mother, her two sisters, broke her arm, killed her 3-year-old daughter and attacked a pregnant Bilkis. Bilqis and Yaqoob named their newborn after their dead son
— Barkha Dutt (@BDUTT) 16 August 2022
Senior Gujarat bureaucrat Raj Kumar told the Indian Express newspaper on Monday that the amnesty applications filed by 11 convicts as they completed 14 years in jail were considered. Life imprisonment in India is usually 14 years in prison.
The Supreme Court of India ordered a federal probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the case. In 2004, the Supreme Court ordered the transfer of the case from Gujarat to Maharashtra after Bilkis alleged death threats from the accused.
A special Central Bureau of Investigation court convicted 13 accused in 2008, while 11 were sentenced to life imprisonment for gang rape and murder.
After a 17-year battle, the Supreme Court in 2019 awarded Bilquis 5 million Indian rupees ($63,000) in compensation – the first such order in a Gujarat riots case.
‘A message to all who seek justice’
Commenting on the release of the 11 convicts, New Delhi-based lawyer Mehmood Pracha told Al Jazeera that “this is further evidence of the involvement of the convicts with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) political leadership”.
“He was involved in the massacre in Gujarat against the Muslim community. And now they (the government) are fulfilling the promises they made to the perpetrators, criminals and their activists in the (Gujarat riots) case that they will protect them from all legal proceedings and that is what they are doing till date. ,” he said.
“This is a message to all those seeking justice that you should have a good legal basis. Unless you have a good legal team and are determined to fight for your rights, getting justice is becoming increasingly difficult, especially under the current regime.”
Mr @PMOIndia @narendramodi When you said “respect women”, did you mean to congratulate the rapists and murderers freed by your party’s government in Gujarat? Do these rapist “uncles” and “brothers” get pampered because they raped Muslim Bilkis Bano? https://t.co/E99S0aUnod
— Kavita Krishnan (@kavita_krishnan) 16 August 2022
In a statement, the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA) criticized the Gujarat government’s decision. It said the decision to release Bano’s rapists encourages such men and their followers to act on their threats.
“Convicting communal killers and rapists is an anomaly in India, not the norm. Is the amnesty intended to restore the rule of impunity for communal killers and rapists?” the statement said.
“Will Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah comment on this decision? Do we really believe that this decision was taken without the blessings of these two top BJP leaders? asked this.
AIPWA said in its statement that the decision to free the 11 convicts came on a day when India was celebrating 75 years of independence from British rule.
“#IndiaAt75 became a day of shame for the women of India as the ruling BJP chose the day to release Bilki’s rapists,” the statement said. “Today, it has become common for Hindu supremacists to openly call for massacres and rapes of Muslims – with no consequences.”