Bilkis Bano case: India's Supreme Court overturns early release of 11 men

A Muslim woman was sexually assaulted and 14 of her family members were murdered by a Hindu group in March 2002

Bilkis Bano, pictured with her daughter and husband during a press conference in May 2017, was gang-raped by 11 men and challenged the decision to release them from jail early. Reuters
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India’s Supreme Court on Monday overturned the release of 11 men in prison for sexual assault following a plea by a female victim who challenged the authorities' decision.

The Muslim woman was raped by the men during the 2002 Gujarat sectarian riots.

Bilkis Bano was sexually attacked and 14 of her family members were killed by a Hindu mob in western Gujarat state in March 2002, one of the deadliest episodes of religious violence in the country since its independence.

All 11 men were sentenced to life in prison six years later.

A two-judge bench has ordered the offenders to appear before authorities within two weeks after it said their release was unlawful.

The Gujarat government run by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government released the 11 prisoners on India’s 75th Independence Day in 2022, after one had pleaded for early release.

Their release and subsequent public support from the ruling party and Hindu groups sparked nationwide outrage and demands that they be sent back to jail.

But the government defended the move, saying the men had been released in accordance with the law, leading to several petitions and Ms Bano approaching the senior court.

The bench on Monday said that as the Gujarat government had no power to grant the release, it had "usurped" powers.

“The exercise of power by the State of Gujarat is an instance of usurpation of power and abuse of power," Justice Nagarathna said.

"This is a classic case where the order of this court was used to violate the rule of law by granting remission. On that ground also the remission orders deserve to be quashed."

Ms Bano told the Supreme Court she had been left “shell-shocked and completely numb” by the decision and “the en masse premature release of the convicts … has shaken the conscience of society”.

The men were serving life sentences, handed down by a court in Mumbai in neighbouring Maharashtra state, for mass murder and violent sexual assault during riots in Gujarat.

In May 2017, the Bombay High Court upheld the trial court’s order.

The convictions were later upheld by the Supreme Court, which awarded Ms Bano 5 million rupees ($62,000) in compensation in 2019.

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

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

The decision sparked anger across the country and dozens of women in New Delhi protested. More than 6,000 Indians, including eminent writers, rights activists and former bureaucrats, signed a petition urging legal authorities to revoke the release.

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, the majority of them Muslim, were killed in days of rioting.

Ms Bano was 21 and five months' pregnant when the men raped her and several of her female family members, before killing 14 of them when they tried to flee Hindu mobs.

The attackers had presumed her dead after the assault but Ms Bano and two other children survived the attack. Seven bodies were never found.

The dead included Ms Bano's mother, pregnant sister-in-law, a day-old niece and her toddler daughter Saleha, who was bludgeoned to death with a rock.

Mr Modi, who was the chief minister of the state at the time, has been criticised for failing to stem the violence.

He was barred from visiting the US and some European countries due to the violence before he was elected Prime Minister in 2014.

Updated: January 10, 2024, 6:09 AM