A Muslim woman who was gang raped while pregnant during India’s devastating 2002 religious riots has appealed to the government to rescind its decision to free the 11 men who had been jailed for life for committing the crime, after they were released on suspended sentences.
Bilkis Bano, who is now in her forties, was five months pregnant when she was brutally gangraped in communal violence in 2002 in the western state of Gujarat, which saw nearly 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, killed in some of the worst religious riots India has experienced.
Seven members of Bano’s family were also killed in the violence, including her three-year-old daughter whose head was smashed on the ground by the perpetrators in the Limkheda area of Gujarat’s Dahod district.
Bano and two of her children were the only survivors among a group of 17 Muslims.
The 11 men, released on Monday when India celebrated 75 years of independence from British rule, were convicted in 2008 of rape, murder and unlawful assembly.
The attackers were greeted by relatives and members of right-wing Hindu groups outside the prison who gave them sweets and touched their feet in a traditional Indian sign of respect.
Bano said the decision by the Gujarat state government to free her rapists has left her “numb”, “bereft of words” and shaken her faith in justice.
“How can justice for a woman end like this? I trusted the highest courts in our land,” she said in a statement late on Wednesday, adding that no authorities reached out to her before making the decision.
“Please undo this harm. Give me back my right to live without fear and in peace.”
Statement by Bilkis Bano. pic.twitter.com/MUAV2YoOP5
— Rana Ayyub (@RanaAyyub) August 17, 2022
On Thursday, dozens of women protested against the release of the men in the capital, New Delhi. Maimoona Mollah of the All India Democratic Women’s Association said the group demanded the state roll back its decision.
“Bano and other survivors should be allowed to live in peace and dignity,” Mollah said.
Raj Kumar, additional chief secretary in Gujarat, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) holds power, told the Indian Express newspaper the convicts’ application for remission was granted because they had completed more than 14 years in jail.
A state government panel made the decision after considering other factors like their age and behaviour in prison.
Kumar said the men were eligible under a 1992 remission policy that was in effect at the time of their conviction. A newer version adopted in 2014 by the federal government bans remission release for those convicted of certain crimes, including rape and murder.
The 2002 riots have long hounded Modi, who was Gujarat’s top elected official at the time, amid allegations that authorities allowed and even encouraged the bloodshed.
Modi has repeatedly denied having any role and the Supreme Court has said it found no evidence to prosecute him.
Videos on social media showing the men being welcomed with sweets and garlands after their release from prison went viral, triggering outrage and anger from women, rights activists and opposition politicians.
“BJP’s bias for a religion is such that even brutal rape and hate crimes are forgivable,” prominent Muslim parliamentarian Asaduddin Owaisi said.
Vrinda Grover, a lawyer, called the decision a “travesty and grave miscarriage of justice,” while speaking to India Today TV.
Niyaz Farooqui, secretary of Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind, India’s largest socio-religious Muslim organisation, criticised the decision.
“This gives a wrong signal. Following all the legal procedures, justice was delivered to the victims, and now the convicts have been released. What message it would send?” he said.
Opposition legislator and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi took aim at Modi on Twitter, questioning what kind of message it sent to women in India from a government that says it wants to empower women.
“The entire country is seeing the difference between your words and deeds,” he wrote in Hindi.
New Delhi-based lawyer Mehmood Pracha told Al Jazeera the release of the 11 men is “one more proof of the convicts’ involvement with the political leadership of the ruling BJP”.
“This is a message to all seeking justice that you have to have good legal support. Unless you have a good legal team and you are determined to fight for your rights, getting justice, especially under the current regime, is becoming more and more difficult,” he said.