Dozens of women have spoken up against the release of 11 Hindu men who gang-raped a pregnant Muslim woman in India in 2002.
Activists gathered in New Delhi to protest on Thursday after a court on Monday ordered the release of the Hindu men who sexually assaulted Bilkis Bano, a then-21-year-old pregnant Muslim woman, and killed seven of her family members.
The protestors held signs that read “Protecting rapists and penalizing victims” and “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” as they directed their outrage toward the state government.
“You are freeing murderers and rapists in this country, indirectly giving a signal to the gangsters of the country that they can go ahead and do what they want, and the [Bharatiya Janata Party] government will stand by them,” Mariam Dhawale of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) told Euronews. “This is totally unacceptable in independent India.”
The Hindu men were previously convicted in 2008 and given life sentences for the rape of Bano and the murder of her family members, including her 3-year-old daughter Saleha, whose head was reportedly smashed on the ground.
The men were welcomed with confectioneries upon their release on Monday as India celebrated the 75th anniversary of the end of British rule in the country.
“#IndiaAt75 became a day of shame for India’s women because the ruling BJP chose to make it a day to free Bilkis’s rapists,” the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA) said in a statement. “Today, it has become commonplace for Hindu supremacists to openly give calls for genocide and rape of Muslims – without any consequences.”
“The mask of the government being concerned about sexual violence against women has slipped,” human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover, who works to reform legislation on violence against women, told The Washington Post. “This is a majoritarian state signaling impunity for hate crimes.”
Yakub Rasul, Bano’s husband, previously noted that their family had no prior information about the men’s release from the courts or the government. The men were released on remission after 14 years of jail time as the district jail advisory committee cited their good behavior and the years they have served.
“This is a message to all seeking justice that you have to have good legal support,” New Delhi-based lawyer Mehmood Pracha told Al Jazeera. “Unless you have a good legal team and you are determined to fight for your rights, getting justice especially under the current regime is becoming more and more difficult.”
Many other lawyers and activists continue to question the court’s decision and criticize the Indian government.
“[The victim] and other survivors should be allowed to live in peace and dignity,” Maimoona Mollah of AIDWA said as their organization demanded the state to reverse its decision.
“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 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.”