A court in India ordered the release of 11 Hindu men who gang-raped a pregnant Muslim woman in 2002 and killed seven of her family members.
Themen involved in the Bilkis Bano case were freed on remission on Monday from Gujarat’s Godhra town jail as India celebrated the 75th anniversary of the end of British rule.
The men were previously convicted in early 2008 and given life sentences for the rape of Bano, a then-21-year-old pregnant Muslim woman, amid the Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002. She was five months pregnant at the time of her rape.
The riots in Gujarat, which were considered some of India’s worst religious unrest in modern times, led to the deaths of more than 1,000 people, many of whom were Muslims. The violence was triggered by the deaths of 59 Hindu pilgrims on board a train that caught fire. Hindu right-wing groups blamed Muslim extremists for the incident.
Current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi previously led Gujarat as chief minister. Today, his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party continues to rule the state.
As Indian law allows convicts to seek remission after 14 years of jail time, the state government reportedly approved the men’s application for remission. The district jail advisory committee cited the time the men had spent in jail and their good behavior and recommended their release.
On Monday, a media footage showed the 11 men being welcomed with confectioneries outside the jail upon their release.
The decision sparked outrage from the victim’s family, lawyers and politicians.
“We have lost our family and want to live in peace, but suddenly this has happened,” Yakub Rasul, Bano’s husband, reportedly said. “We had no prior information about their release, either from the courts or the government. We only learnt about it from the media.”
The Hindu men’s release has also sparked criticism regarding the government’s stance on violence against women.
“The remission of the sentence of convicts of a gruesome crime like gang-rape and murder is morally and ethically improper,” senior lawyer Anand Yagnik said. “What is the signal we are trying to send?”
“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,” Bano reportedly wrote in a statement released on Wednesday.
“My sorrow and my wavering faith is not for myself alone but for every woman who is struggling for justice in courts,” she added. “No one enquired about my safety and well-being, before taking such a big and unjust decision. Give me back my right to live without fear and in peace. Please ensure that my family and I are kept safe.”