The release of those convicted in the Bilkis Bano case in Gujarat sparks outrage in India

The release of those convicted in the Bilkis Bano case in Gujarat sparks outrage in India

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NEW DELHI – Bilkis Bano was five months pregnant when she was attacked by a Hindu mob in 2002 as anti-Muslim violence swept the western Indian state of Gujarat.

The then 21-year-old Bano was gang-raped by sword-wielding men from her neighborhood. Fourteen of her family members were killed, including her three-year-old daughter, who was snatched from her arms and thrown against a rock.

This week, 11 men serving a life sentence for the crimes were released from prison by the Gujarat state government, prompting widespread outrage and an emotional appeal by Bano for justice.

In a statement issued by her attorney on Wednesday, Bano said the messages left her “deaf” and “deprived.”

“I trusted the system and slowly learned to live with my trauma,” she said, adding that the release shook her trust in the justice system. “No one inquired about my safety and well-being before making such a big and unjust decision.”

The development comes as a shock to the country, which is struggling to combat widespread sexual violence against women. In recent years, authorities have tightened laws and imposed harsher penalties, but rape conviction rates remain low.

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Women’s rights groups said the release of the perpetrators on August 15, the anniversary of the country’s 75-year independence, came as a blow to any rape victim.

“We are ashamed that on the day when we should celebrate our freedoms and be proud of our independence, the women of India instead viewed the release of gang rapists and mass murderers as an act of government generosity,” the groups said in a statement.

It was also a setback for the survivors of the Gujarat unrest, who fought long and hard for justice. The riots broke out in 2002 after a train fire blamed on Muslims killed a group of Hindu pilgrims. More than 1,000 people were killed in the days of vigilantism that followed, most of them Muslims. Narendra Modi, then Prime Minister of Gujarat, is now India’s Prime Minister. Hate speech and violence against Muslims have escalated under his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The men who were released this week were received like heroes. In a video from outside the prison, she receive sweets as a gift. Local media said the men were later honored with garlands by members of Hindu nationalist groups affiliated with the BJP.

Sujal Mayatra, the official who headed the panel in Gujarat that recommended the men’s release, said the decision was based on various factors.

“They had a 14-year tenure behind them. We inquired about her behavior and her probation period,” he said. “The nature of the crime and the safety of the victim were also considered.”

In India, sentences are intended to be life imprisonment or death, but convicts can apply for parole after 14 years. While the most recent remission policy states that those convicted of rape and murder cannot be released early, the policy at the time of the Bano case did not make that distinction.

In a 2017 BBC interview, Bano said she was fleeing violence in a group of 17 people, including her mother and young siblings, in March 2002 when a mob approached her.

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In addition to raping Bano and murdering her daughter, the men raped her cousin before murdering her and her two-day-old baby. Bano was one of only three people from the group to survive the massacre.

Human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover, who has been involved in efforts to reform legislation against violence against women, called the government’s decision “grossly arbitrary and discriminatory”.

“The mask of government concern over sexual violence against women has slipped. This is a majority state that signals impunity for hate crimes,” she said.

Bano’s case took years to work its way through the Indian justice system, eventually leading to convictions in 2008. Meanwhile, she was the target of death threats, had to move frequently, and went into hiding.

In 2019, India’s Supreme Court ordered the state government to pay Bano about $62,000 in compensation, noting that she was forced to live like a “nomad” and an “orphan.”

Now her family feels like they’re back to square one.

“The battle we fought for so many years was ended in a single moment,” Yakub Rasool, Bano’s husband, told the Indian Express.

Bano said in her statement that her grief isn’t just hers, “it’s for every woman fighting for justice in court.”

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