Bilkis Bano case: India's top court to hear plea against release of 11 convicts

Men were convicted of gang raping a Muslim woman and killing her family during deadly sectarian riots in 2002

Activists hold placards during a protest on Monday against the release of men convicted of gang-raping Bilkis Bano during the 2002 riots in Gujarat. AFP
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India’s Supreme Court is to hear challenges against the release of 11 men convicted of gang raping a Muslim woman and killing her family during the deadly sectarian riots in 2002.

Bilkis Bano was sexually assaulted and 14 of her family members were killed by a Hindu mob in western Gujarat state in March 2002.

The 11 convicted were released on remission by India’s Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party government on August 15, after one of them pleaded for early release following 15 years in prison from 2008.

“This petition pertains to release in the case of Bilkis Bano. She was the woman who was assaulted,” the petitioners' lawyer Kapil Sibal told the bench headed by Chief Justice of India Justice NV Ramana.

“We will look into it,” the top judge said, without fixing a date for the hearing.

The legal challenge is the first in the case that has caused widespread anger and condemnation against Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party, which governs Gujarat state.

Viral images and videos of the convicts being celebrated with sweets and garlands by relatives and extremist Hindu groups, coinciding with India’s Independence Day celebrations, triggered national and international outrage amid demands their release be revoked.

Ms Bano said in a statement last week the move had left her “numb”.

The legal plea was filed by Suhashini Ali, a communist politician, journalist Revati Laul and Professor Roop Rekha Verma. A separate public interest litigation was also filed by opposition parliamentarian Mahua Moitra against their release, arguing the move has caused “legitimate apprehensions regarding the safety of her and her family members”.

Ms Bano has not challenged the release, but expressed her strong displeasure, saying the move has “taken from me my peace and shaken my faith in justice”.

“Give me back my right to live without fear and in peace,” she said.

Ms Bano was 21 and five months pregnant when the convicts raped her and several female family members before killing 14 of them as they attempted to flee marauding Hindu mobs.

The attackers had presumed her to be dead after the assault. Ms Bano and two other children survived the attack, while seven bodies were never found.

The dead included her mother, pregnant sister-in-law, a day-old niece and her toddler daughter Saleha, whose head was smashed with a rock.

Anti-Muslim violence

Violence had broken out in the state’s Godhra city after 59 Hindu pilgrims were killed in a train fire by a group of Muslims on February 27, 2002. The attack led to widespread, largely anti-Muslim violence.

More than 1,000 people, the majority of them from the minority community, were killed in days of rioting in the state governed by then-chief minister Mr Modi.

A court in Mumbai sentenced the 11 attackers to life after the trial was moved from Gujarat, where police and courts had initially dismissed her allegations and closed the case.

She challenged the move in the top court and won a reprieve from it amid intimidation and life threats by the attackers during the trial. She then spent years in safe houses.

Release 'met all legal standards'

The higher courts later upheld the convictions, which also awarded her 5 million rupees ($62,700) compensation in 2019.

One of the convicts, Radheshyam Shah, approached the Supreme Court in May for remission, pleading that he had served more than 15 years in prison. The state government authorised their release on the basis of their “age, nature of the crime, behavior in prison”.

The ruling party defended its decision, saying the remission order met all legal standards. Last week, some 6,000 people, including eminent writers, rights activists and former bureaucrats, signed a petition urging the top court to intervene and revoke their release.

That followed condemnation by US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which called the release “unjustified”.

“USCIRF strongly condemns the early and unjustified release of 11 men sentenced to life in prison for raping a pregnant Muslim woman and committing murder against Muslim victims during the 2002 Gujarat Riots,” Abraham Cooper, vice chairman of the commission, said on Friday.

Updated: August 23, 2022, 9:48 AM