Bilkis Bano: India Supreme Court cancels release of 2002 riots rapists

Connie Queline

Bilkis Bano: India Supreme Court cancels release of 2002 riots rapists

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India’s top court has cancelled a 2022 Gujarat government order allowing the premature release of 11 men who were convicted for the gangrape of a pregnant Muslim woman, Bilkis Bano.

The men will have to return to prison in a fortnight, the order said.

The convicts, who had also murdered 14 members of Bano’s family, were serving life sentences.

They were part of a Hindu mob that attacked Bano and her family during the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat.

Their release in August 2022 had caused global outrage, especially after they were accorded a heroes’ welcome as they stepped outside the Godhra jail, with relatives giving them sweets and touching their feet to show respect.

The Supreme Court heard several petitions, including one from Bano, challenging the convicts’ release. In her petition, Bano had said that the premature release of the men had “shaken the conscience of the society”. Calling it “one of the most gruesome crimes this country has ever seen”, she said the release had left her “shell-shocked and completely numb”.

Reading from the judgement on Monday, the two-judge Supreme Court bench, headed by Justice BV Nagarathna, said the state of Gujarat was “not competent” to pass the remission order in the case since the men were tried and convicted in a court in the state of Maharashtra.

“The government of the state where the offender is sentenced is the appropriate government to grant remission, not the government of the state where the offence took place,” she said.

The bench added that since the government’s remission order had been nullified, the 11 convicts must return to prison within two weeks.

“Justice encompasses not just the rights of the convicts but also the rights of the victims” and the “primary duty” of the court is to uphold justice and rule of law, Justice Nagarathna said, adding that the “rule of law must be preserved unmindful of the ripples of the consequences”.

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The judgement, being hailed as a landmark order, is bound to create some ripples, especially in Gujarat where the state has supported the release of the convicts.

Officials had said in court that the men – first convicted by a trial court in 2008 – had spent more than 14 years in jail and were released after considering other factors such as their age and good behaviour in prison. The state government said they had sought the federal government’s approval – which was granted by the home ministry, led by Amit Shah.

The approval had come despite opposition from a court and federal prosecutors who had said they should not be “released prematurely and no leniency may be shown” to them as their crime was “heinous, grave and serious”.

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Days after her attackers were freed, Bano issued a statement calling the decision to free the men “unjust” and said it had “shaken” her faith in justice.

“When I heard that the convicts who had devastated my family and life had walked free, I was bereft of words. I am still numb,” she said.

The riots began after a fire on a passenger train in Godhra town killed 60 Hindu pilgrims

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“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 wrote, appealing to the Gujarat government to “undo this harm” and “give me back my right to live without fear and in peace”.

The attack on Bano and her family was one of the most horrific crimes during the riots, which began after 60 Hindu pilgrims died in a fire on a passenger train in Godhra town.

Blaming Muslims for starting the fire, Hindu mobs went on a rampage, attacking Muslim neighbourhoods. Over three days, more than 1,000 people died, most of them Muslims.

The morning after the train fire, Bano – then 19 and pregnant with her second child – was visiting her parents in a village called Randhikpur near Godhra with her three-year-old daughter.

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After rioters attacked the village and started setting Muslim homes on fire, Bano and her family went on the run, she told me when I met her a few years back.

She was in a group of 17 that included her daughter, her mother, a pregnant cousin, her younger siblings, nieces and nephews, and two adult men.

Over the next few days, they travelled from village to village, seeking shelter in mosques or subsisting on the kindness of Hindu neighbours.

On the morning of 3 March 2002, as they set out to go to a nearby village where they believed they would be safer, a group of men attacked them “with swords and sticks”.

“One of them snatched my daughter from my lap and threw her on the ground, bashing her head into a rock.”

Her attackers were her neighbours, men she had seen almost daily while growing up. They tore off her clothes and several of them raped her, ignoring her pleas for mercy.

Her cousin, who had delivered a baby two days earlier while they were on the run, was raped and murdered and her newborn was killed.

Bano survived because she lost consciousness and her attackers left, believing she was dead. Two boys – seven and four – were the only other survivors of the massacre.

Narendra Modi

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Her fight for justice was long and nightmarish. It has been well documented that some police and state officials tried to intimidate her, evidence was destroyed and the dead were buried without post-mortems. The doctors who examined her said she hadn’t been raped, and she received death threats.

The first arrests in the case were made only in 2004 after India’s Supreme Court handed over the case to federal investigators and transferred her case to Mumbai saying that courts in Gujarat could not deliver justice to her.

Mr Modi, who was then Gujarat chief minister, was criticised for not doing enough to prevent the carnage. He has always denied wrongdoing and has not apologised for the riots.

In 2013, a Supreme Court panel also said that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him. But critics have continued to blame him for the riots happening under his watch.

Over the years, the courts have convicted dozens of people for involvement in the riots, but some high-profile accused got bail or were exonerated by higher courts. This included Maya Kodnani, an ex-minister in Mr Modi’s Gujarat cabinet, whom a trial court had called “a kingpin of the riots” that took place in one area.

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