Muslim woman 'numb' as men who raped her during riots in western India are released

Ruling BJP party faces criticism after 11 attackers have sentences cut short

Aksha Yakub Rasool, 2, sits on her mother Bilkis Bano’s knee in New Delhi. Fourteen of Ms Bano's family, including her infant daughter, were murdered during riots in 2002. Reuters
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A Muslim woman who was gang raped while pregnant during sectarian riots in the western Indian state of Gujarat in 2002 has said the "trauma of the past 20 years washed over me again" when authorities in India released the 11 men jailed for the attack.

Bilkis Bano was raped and 14 of her family members murdered by a group of Hindu men in one of the worst incidents of sectarian violence in the country’s history.

Images were circulated on social media that showed the men being given food and garlands after being released on Monday.

A court sentenced the men to life in prison in 2008 after a protracted trial.

“I was bereft of words. I am still numb … I was learning slowly to live with my trauma,” Ms Bano said in a statement released by her lawyer.

She has urged the state government to reverse the decision.

“The release of these convicts has taken from me my peace and shaken my faith in justice. My sorrow and my wavering faith is not for myself alone but for every woman who is struggling for justice in courts,” she said.

“Give me back my right to live without fear and in peace."

Violence broke out in Godhra city in Gujarat on February 27, 2002, after 59 Hindu pilgrims were killed by a group of Muslims.

The attack sparked violence across the state and more than 1,000 people, majority of them Muslim, were killed in days of rioting.

Mr Modi, who was the chief minister of the state at the time, has been criticised for failing to stop the violence. He was barred from visiting the US and some European countries owing to the violence, before he was elected prime minister in 2014.

Activists in New Delhi protest against the release of 11 men jailed for raping a pregnant woman during riots in Gujarat in 2002. AFP

Ms Bano was 21 and five-months pregnant when she was raped by Hindu neighbours in March 2002. Seven of the bodies of her family members were never found.

The dead included her toddler daughter Saleha, whose head was smashed with a rock, as well as her mother and infant niece.

A court in Mumbai in western Maharashtra state sentenced the men to life in jail over the attack. The trial was moved from Gujarat, where police and the courts initially dismissed her accusations.

The convictions were later upheld by the Supreme Court, which awarded her five million rupees ($62,000) in compensation in 2019.

One of the men, Radheshyam Shah, asked the court in May for remission, saying he served more than 15 years in prison.

The court asked the state government to decide on the application and their release was granted on the basis of their “age, nature of the crime and behaviour in prison”.

Their released sparked outrage across the country and dozens of women in New Delhi protested against the move on Thursday.

A placard at the protest site said: “Rise in rage against the release of 11 rape convicts and murderers."

Thousands of social media users have condemned the decision.

India’s main opposition Congress party said it exposed the government’s attitude towards women and the Muslim community.

“Those who raped a five-month pregnant woman and killed her 3-year-old girl were released. Prime Minister, the whole country is seeing the difference between your words and deeds,” said Rahul Gandhi, leader of the Congress party.

Updated: August 18, 2022, 2:40 PM