Bilkis Bano: India’s supreme court to hear case after reports that rapists were out on parole for days on end

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India’s Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to consider listing a plea challenging the grant of remission to 11 men who were convicted of gangraping a pregnant Indian woman and murdering seven of her family members in 2002 in the western state of Gujarat.

The 11 convicts who were serving life terms were released from prison last week after the Hindu-nationist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled state government approved their plea to reduce their sentences under a remission policy.

The plea in the Supreme Court came a day after The Indian Express reported that the convicts were “frequently out on parole” for reasons such as a son’s wedding or a house-warming ceremony.

The convicts allegedly also used their time out of jail to threaten witnesses.

Ms Bano, then 21 years old and five months pregnant, was gang-raped in Gujarat’s Dahod district on 3 March 2002 as communal violence engulfed the entire state just days after the Sabarmati Express massacre.

At least 59 people, mostly volunteers of Hindu organisations, were killed on the Sabarmati Express train when their coach was set on fire at Gujarat’s Godhra station by a suspected Muslim mob, though who lit the fire is often disputed.

The incident unleashed violence across the state with government figures suggesting the death toll at over 1,000. However, unofficial estimates have said over 2,000 people – mostly Muslims – were killed.

The 11 men were awarded life imprisonment on charges of rape and murder by a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court in Mumbai city in 2008.

The premature release of the convicts has fueled public anger across the country, with questions being raised about her safety.

Following their release, a public interest litigation challenging the remission was filed before the top court by Communist Party of India (Marxist) member Subhashini Ali, Trinamool Congress lawmaker Mahua Moitra, senior journalist Revati Laul and professor Roop Reha Verma.

A bench headed by chief justice Nuthalapati Venkata Ramana agreed to look into the matter after advocate Aparna Bhat, representing one of the petitioners, sought an urgent listing on 24 August.

Justice Ramana asked the petitioners if the convicts were granted remission by virtue of the Supreme Court, to which senior advocate Kapil Sibal responded saying that they were challenging only the remission.

Activists protest against the release of 11 men convicted of gangrape and murder (AFP via Getty Images)

“The Supreme Court gave discretion to the government to consider it. …we are only challenging the remission and not the Supreme Court order.

“The Supreme Court order is fine, my lords. We are challenging the principles on the basis of which remission was granted,” Mr Sibal said, according to Bar and Bench.

“Fourteen people were killed and a pregnant woman was assaulted,” Mr Sibal added.

According to reports, the convicts were released due to “completion of 14 years” in prison and other factors, which included “age, nature of the crime and behaviour in prison”, Gujarat’s additional chief secretary Raj Kumar said.

The convicts were greeted with garlands and offered sweets by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an umbrella group of Hindu outfits and ally of prime minister Narendra Modi’s BJP, drawing public outrage.

Ms Bano in an emotional statement questioned their release, adding: “Today, I can say only this – how can justice for any woman end like this? Two days ago, on August 15, 2022, the trauma of the past 20 years washed over me again.”

“When I heard that the 11 convicted men who devastated my family and my life, and took from me my three-year-old daughter, had walked free, I was bereft of words. I am still numb,” Ms Bano continued.

“No one enquired about my safety and well-being, before taking such a big and unjust decision,” Ms Bano pointed out.

She has now appealed to the Gujarat government to “please undo this harm”.

“Give me back my right to live without fear and in peace. Please ensure that my family and I are kept safe,” she added.