The release of 11 convicts who had been sentenced to life imprisonment for gang rape and murder in India has triggered a chorus of protest, while the victim of the rape has urged the government to reverse its decision, saying it has shaken her faith in justice.
The attack on Bilkis Bano and her family was one of the most heinous that took place during deadly communal riots that wracked the western state of Gujarat two decades ago. Bano, who was five-months pregnant at that time, was brutally gang-raped. Seven other family members including her 3-year-old daughter were killed.
The 11 men walked out of jail in Gujarat’s Godhra town on Monday after the state government approved their application for remission of sentence. Their release coincided with India’s Independence Day celebrations.
Bano, a Muslim woman now in her 40s, urged the Gujarat government to reconsider the decision and give back her “right to live without fear and in peace.” The state is governed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
“When I heard that 11 convicted men who devastated my family and life had walked free, I was bereft of words. I am still numb,” she said in a statement late Wednesday.
“How can justice for any woman end like this? I trusted the highest courts in our land. I trusted the system, and I was learning slowly to live with my trauma. The release of these convicts has taken from me my peace and shaken my faith in justice” she said. “Please undo the harm.”
Bano said authorities had not approached her before taking the “big and unjust decision.”
Bano’s gang rape and the killings of her family members had highlighted the horrific violence that swept through Gujarat after 60 Hindu pilgrims died in a fire on a passenger train in the town of Godhra in 2002. Blaming Muslims for the blaze, Hindu mobs attacked Muslims.
More than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the rioting, which took place when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was chief minister of the state. Critics had accused him of not doing enough to stop the violence, but in 2013 the Supreme Court said that there was insufficient evidence against him.
Efforts by Bano to obtain justice were not easy — there were attempts to destroy evidence and the trial of the accused men had to be shifted outside Gujarat to Mumbai to allow her to testify safely.
It is not just the release of the 11 convicts that has caused outrage — it is also the welcome they received outside jail.
Videos on social media that have gone viral showed relatives giving them sweets and garlands and touching their feet — a custom that is a mark of respect.
A senior official in Gujarat, Raj Kumar, told The Indian Express newspaper that the convicts were granted remission because they had completed 14 years in prison and that a panel formed to consider their appeal for release had taken into account factors such as their age and behavior in prison.
Several senior lawyers, however, told Indian television that the release went against federal guidelines that rape and murder convicts cannot be granted remission and must remain in prison for life.
Activists have slammed the decision, calling it discriminatory against India’s minority Muslims, who critics say have been marginalized under the BJP rule.
“This is nothing but a message to minority communities, the lower castes and the marginalized that majoritarianism is in play in the country,” Annie Raja, general secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women told VOA. “Seeing rapists and murderers walk free is a huge setback to efforts to secure justice for women.”
Opposition politicians and female activists said that their release flew in the face of the government’s policy to deal stringently with violence against women. Dozens of women held a protest against the release in New Delhi.
In a tweet, the head of the opposition Congress Party, Rahul Gandhi, asked “what is the message going out to the women of the country, from those speaking of women empowerment.” That was a reference to Modi’s Independence Day speech, in which the Indian leader called on the country to empower women and not do anything to lower their dignity.
“The entire country is seeing the difference between your words and deeds,” Gandhi said.