Release of convicts in Gujarat Bilkis Bano case 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 gripped the western Indian state of Gujarat.

Bano, then 21, was gang-raped by men armed with swords from her neighborhood. Fourteen members of her family were killed, including her 3-year-old daughter, who was snatched from her arms and slammed against a rock.

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

In a statement issued Wednesday through her attorney, Bano said the news left her “numb” and “bereft.”

“I trusted the system and was slowly learning to live with my trauma,” she said, adding that the release had shaken her faith in the justice system. “Nobody asked about my safety and well-being before making such a big and unfair decision.”

The development is a shock to the country that has struggled to address widespread sexual violence against women. In recent years, authorities have made stricter laws and instituted harsher punishments, but conviction rates for rape remain low.

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Women’s rights groups said the perpetrators’ release on August 15, an anniversary of the country’s 75th year of independence, was a blow to all rape victims.

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

It was also a setback for the survivors of the Gujarat riots, who have fought hard for justice. Riots broke out in 2002 after a Train fire attributed to Muslims killed a group of Hindu pilgrims. More than 1,000 people were killed in the days of vigilante violence that followed, most of them Muslims. Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of Gujarat at the time, is now the Prime Minister of India. Under his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, hate speech and violence against Muslims has increased sharply.

The men freed this week have received a hero’s welcome. In a video from outside the prison, they sweets are given Local media he 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 several factors.

“They had served 14 years of mandate. We inquired about his conduct and probation time,” he said. “The nature of the crime and the safety of the victim were also taken into account.”

In India, life sentences are meant to last until death, but convicts can apply for early release after 14 years. While the most recent diversion policy says 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 In an interview, Bano said he was fleeing violence in a group of 17 that included his mother and younger siblings in March 2002 when a mob accosted them.

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In addition to raping Bano and killing her daughter, the men gang-raped her cousin before murdering her and her two-day-old baby. Bano was one of the three people in the group who survived the massacre.

Human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover, who has been part of efforts to reform legislation on violence against women, described the government’s decision as “extremely arbitrary and discriminatory.”

“The mask of the government concerned about sexual violence against women has fallen off. This is a majority state that points to impunity for hate crimes,” he said.

Bano’s case took years to work its way through the Indian justice system, finally resulting in convictions in 2008. Meanwhile, she was the target of death threats, forced to move frequently and live in hiding.

In 2019, India Supreme Court ordered the state government to pay around $62,000 in compensation to Bano, saying she had been forced to live as a “nomad” and an “orphan.”

Now, his family feels that they have returned to the starting point.

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

Bano, in her statement, said that her pain was not only hers “but that of every woman who is fighting for justice in court.”

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

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