Eleven men jailed for life for raping a pregnant Muslim woman and murdering family members during riots in India’s Gujarat state have been released, sparking outrage against the country's Hindu nationalist government.
Bilkis Bano, then 21 years old and five months pregnant, was raped and seven members of her family were killed during sectarian riots that broke out in February 2002 in western Gujarat state.
A Mumbai court sentenced the men to life in 2008, in one of the high profile cases after the violence which left nearly 1,000 people dead.
However, when they had served 15 years in prison, one of them — Radheshyam Shah — appealed to the Supreme Court for release under the state's remission policy.
The men walked free on India’s Independence Day on Monday, after the state government run by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party released them, citing their “age, nature of the crime, behaviour in prison”.
The top court in May had asked the state government to decide on Shah's application and a committee was formed to look into the matter, said Sujal Mayatra, Collector of Panchmahal District, who headed the committee.
“A few months back the committee took a unanimous decision in favour of remission of all the 11 convicts in the case and the recommendation was sent to the state government. We received the orders for their release yesterday,” Mr Mayatra said.
Violence in 2002
Violence erupted in the state’s Godhra city in February 2002 after the killing of 59 Hindu pilgrims by Muslims accused of setting fire to a train coach as they returned from the Hindu holy city of Ayodhya.
At the time, Mr Modi was the state's chief minister.
The train killings followed days of violence across the state.
More than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed in days of rioting in the state, considered one of the worst instances of sectarian violence in modern India.
Ms Bano, from Randhikpur near Ahmedabad, and 15 others, including her toddler daughter Saleha and a day-old niece, had fled their village but were ambushed by a Hindu mob armed with sickles, swords and sticks.
She was gang-raped and her 3-year-old daughter was snatched from her arms and her head smashed with a rock. Six family members managed to escape and seven others whose bodies were not found were later declared dead, as per Indian law that deems anyone missing for more than seven years to be considered dead.
Ms Bano borrowed clothes from a local woman when she regained consciousness and managed to reach a police station.
She identified all the attackers, who lived in the same neighbourhood and were known to her family.
The 11 men were arrested in 2004.
The trial began in Ahmedabad but was later transferred to Mumbai after Ms Bano received death threats and amid fears over evidence tampering and harm to witnesses.
A special court in January 2008 sentenced the 11 to life imprisonment on charges of gang rape and murder.
The court, however, acquitted seven people, including a police constable accused of watering down the complaint to shield the 11 men, and two doctors accused of botching autopsies and severing the heads of the victims to hide their identities.
Bombay's High Court upheld the convictions in 2017 and awarded Ms Bano compensation of 5 million rupees ($62,984) in 2019.
The government’s decision to release the convicts has sparked outrage among women's rights activists and on social media, particularly as it came on the same day as the country celebrated its 75th year of Independence, when Mr Modi pledged to uphold the dignity and safety of women.
Many accused the government of pandering to Hindu extremists ahead of Gujarat state elections later this year.
Others claimed their release reflected Mr Modi’s anti-Muslim policies.
Kavita Krishnan, a politician and women's rights activist, speaking to The National, asked: “What was the basis of the Gujarat government’s decision to free those men on August 15, 2022, to celebrate what PM Modi calls India’s 'Amrit Kaal' [an astrology term which signifies the perfect time to start a new venture]? Was remission and freedom a reward for rape and murder of Muslims?”
“The conviction of communal killers and rapists is after all an aberration in India, not the rule,” she added. “Does the remission intend to restore the rule of impunity for communal killers and rapists?”
The opposition Congress party also condemned the decision, tweeting: "During the Gujarat riots, pregnant Bilkis Bano was gang raped, seven members of her family were also killed in the violence. All the culprits in this case were released by the Gujarat government on Independence Day."
"This is the culmination of 'BJP Nyay' [justice]," it said.