The government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi approved the August release of 11 men convicted and sentenced to life in prison for gang-raping a Muslim woman and murdering members of her family during the 2002 Gujarat religious riots, according to court documents.
The approval letter from India’s home ministry, headed by Modi’s close aide Amit Shah, was uploaded on social media by legal site The Leaflet.
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The release of the convicts in August and their subsequent felicitation by right-wing activists had caused outrage. But it was not clear at that time if the central government okayed their release.
Bilkis Bano, who is now in her forties, was five months pregnant when she was brutally gang-raped in communal violence in 2002 when Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat state. Nearly 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in some of the worst religious violence in the country.
According to an affidavit submitted by the Gujarat government in the Supreme Court, the state said its decision to release the convicts was based on them spending 14 years in jail and their good behaviour during their time in prison.
The top court had asked the state government to share documents regarding the remission granted to the rapists following multiple pleas filed against their release.
New Delhi-based NDTV news channel, quoting court documents, reported that the convicted men were granted stretches of parole and furloughs for more than 1,000 days before they were prematurely released in August.
According to another document posted by The Leaflet, the state government had decided to release the prisoners despite objections from the Central Bureau of Investigation whose chief said that no leniency should be shown and that the crimes were “heinous, grave and serious”.
The 11 men were jailed in 2008 for life in the gang rape and murder case. Fourteen members of Bano’s family were also killed in the violence, including her three-year-old daughter whose head was smashed on the ground by perpetrators in Limkheda, in Gujarat’s Dahod district.
The convicts were released in August, coinciding with 75 years of India’s independence.
— The Leaflet (@TheLeaflet_in) October 17, 2022
Dozens of protesters took to the streets in Delhi, demonstrating against the release of the convicts, while opposition leaders panned the BJP for undermining the rights of women and harbouring a bias towards Muslims.
The opposition Congress party’s leader Rahul Gandhi accused Prime Minister Modi of supporting rapists.
“Talk of respect for women from the ramparts of the Red Fort but in reality support for ‘rapists’,” Gandhi tweeted in Hindi.
“Bilkis Bano’s rape and the massacre of her family members occurred as part of an anti-Muslim pogrom on Modi’s watch as Gujarat chief minister in 2002,” Kavita Krishnan, a feminist activist, told Al Jazeera.
“By releasing the convicted rapists and killers early, Modi as prime minister is signalling his Hindu-supremacist commitment to Hindu voters in Gujarat on the eve of impending state polls.
“This action belies the Modi government’s claims of rescuing Muslim women from patriarchal practices [which Modi’s party implies are a unique feature of Islam],” she said from Bhilai, India.
At the time of the release, Bano said the decision by the Gujarat government to free her rapists has left her “numb” and “bereft of words”, and had shaken her faith in justice.
“How can justice for a woman end like this? I trusted the highest courts in our land,” she said, adding that no authorities reached out to her before making the decision.
“Please undo this harm. Give me back my right to live without fear and in peace.”
The 2002 riots have been a thorn in Modi’s side – he was Gujarat’s top elected official at the time – amid allegations that authorities allowed and even encouraged the bloodshed.
Modi has repeatedly denied having any role and the Supreme Court has said it found no evidence to prosecute him.