Eleven men serving life imprisonment for gang rape and murders during the 2002 Gujarat riots have been freed, Indian media reports said.
The 11 convicts in what came to be known as the Bilkis Bano case were freed on Monday from jail in Gujarat’s Godhra town after the state government approved their application for remission of sentence, said the reports.
An anti-Muslim pogrom happened in 2002 after a train carrying many Hindu pilgrims caught fire, killing 59 people. Hindu right-wing groups blamed the local Muslims for the incident.
In the retaliatory violence that went on for days, nearly 2,000 people, most of them Muslims, were hacked, shot and burned to death 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 even targeting human rights defenders fighting for the victims.
Bilkis Bano case
In one of the most horrific episodes of large-scale anti-Muslim violence, Bilkis Bano was gang raped and her three-year-old daughter Saleha was among 14 people killed by a Hindu crowd on March 3, 2002, in Limkheda area of Dahod district in Gujarat.
Saleha was killed by smashing her head on the ground, the court said in its ruling. Bano was 21 years old and five months pregnant at the time. She survived by playing dead during the carnage and then lost consciousness.
The 11 men convicted were from Bano’s neighbourhood, she later told the prosecutors.
Senior Gujarat bureaucrat Raj Kumar told The Indian Express newspaper on Monday the application for remission filed by the 11 convicts was considered due to the “completion of 14 years” in jail. Life sentences in India typically carry a jail term of 14 years.
India’s Supreme Court had ordered a federal investigation into the case by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). In 2004, the top court ordered the trial to be transferred from Gujarat to Maharashtra after Bilkis alleged death threats from the accused.
A special Central Bureau of Investigation court convicted 13 accused in 2008, sentencing 11 to life imprisonment on the charge of gang rape and murder.
After a 17-year battle, the Supreme Court in 2019 awarded Bilkis a compensation of five million Indian rupees ($63,000) – the first such order in the Gujarat riots case.
‘Message to all seeking justice’
Commenting on the release of the 11 convicts, New Delhi-based lawyer Mehmood Pracha told Al Jazeera it is “one more proof of the convicts’ involvement with the political leadership of ruling Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP)”.
“They were involved in Gujarat carnage against the Muslim community. And now they (government) are living up to their promises which they had made to the criminals, culprits, and their cadres in the (Gujrat riots) case) that they will protect them from all legal prosecution and that’s what they are doing till date,” he said.
“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.”
In a statement, the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA) slammed the Gujarat government’s decision. It said the decision to free Bano’s rapists emboldens such men and their followers to act on their threats.
“The conviction of communal killers and rapists is after all an aberration in India, not the rule. Does the remission intend to restore the rule of impunity for communal killers and rapists?” said the statement.
“Will Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah care to comment on this decision? Are we really to believe that this decision was taken without the blessing of these two topmost leaders of the BJP?” it asked.
In its statement, AIPWA said the decision to free the 11 convicts came on the day India was celebrating 75 years of independence from British rule.
“#IndiaAt75 became a day of shame for India’s women because the ruling BJP chose to make it a day to free Bilki’s rapists,” said the statement. “Today, it has become commonplace for Hindu supremacists to openly give calls for genocide and rape of Muslims – without any consequences.”