Outrage in India over release of 11 convicted of gang rape during 2002 riots

NEW DELHI – There is growing anger in India over the release of 11 convicts who were jailed for life over the horrific gang rape of a woman and the murder of her family members in Gujarat during the 2002 riots, which left more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, dead.

Ms Bilkis Bano, the survivor, was 21 back then and five months pregnant. Fourteen members of her family were killed, including her three-year-old daughter, who was snatched out of her arms and whose head was smashed against the ground.

The men, who were sentenced to life imprisonment in 2008 by a special court on charges of murder and gang rape, stepped out of jail after more than 14 years in captivity on Aug 15, India’s 75th anniversary of independence.

A large protest was held last Saturday in Delhi and other cities, including Hyderabad, Kochi and Bangalore, where participants chanted slogans urging the government to reverse the rapists’ release.

Ms Vani Subramanian, a member of the Saheli Women’s Resource Centre in Delhi, said the convicts’ release undoes justice that was achieved in an “extremely difficult” and “communally polarised environment”.

“It took extreme odds on her part, on the part of her lawyer, and on the part of everyone who supported her, to actually get to where we got,” Ms Subramanian told The Straits Times, referring to Ms Bano.

The convicts were released after a Gujarat state government panel cleared their remission. In India, life sentences are supposed to last until death, but convicts are eligible for release after a minimum of 14 years and fulfilling other conditions such as good conduct in prison.

The men were freed as per the remission policy in place at the time Ms Bano’s case was heard, starting in 2004. However, the decision contravenes fresh guidelines issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs in June this year that exclude rapists from such a privilege.

Ms Subramanian noted that the remission order did not factor in the need for assuring Ms Bano and her family of their safety, and said the wider implications of this decision are “deeply frightening”, especially for every rape survivor who is told to “trust the system”.

“Bilkis did what we tell all women to do, which is take recourse to the law and fight for justice,” she said. “Tell me on what grounds can any woman today be asked to pursue justice legally. You will be vilified during the trial. Your family will be targeted, and at the end of this, your perpetrators will walk out as ‘respectable’ human beings.”

Last Saturday, a group of 134 former civil servants also released a letter addressed to the Chief Justice of India, asking him to rescind the remission order that they said was marked by “glaring deviations from the established law”.

Taking up a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) last Thursday challenging the rapists’ release, the Supreme Court sought a response from the Gujarat government and has scheduled its next hearing in two weeks.

The PIL was filed by Ms Mahua Moitra, an opposition Member of Parliament from the All India Trinamool Congress party.

Visuals of the convicted rapists being welcomed and garlanded by Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a right-wing Hindu group, soon after their release have fuelled public anger.