Bilkis Bano: 11 convicted gang rapists and murderers in Gujarat riots case released from jail

Eleven convicts serving life terms over the gangrape of a pregnant Indian woman and the murder of seven of her family members during the 2002 Gujarat riots have been released by the state government.

On 3 March 2002, Ms Bano, then 21 years old and five months pregnant, was gang-raped in Gujarat’s Dahod district as violence tore across the state in the aftermath of the Sabarmati Express massacre just days before.

On 27 February, 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 of an unprecedented scale. While government figures say over 1,000 people were killed in post-Godhra violence, unofficial estimates have said over 2,000 people – mostly Muslims – were killed.

Ms Bano had fled her village in the aftermath of the violence with her toddler daughter and 15 others.

On 3 March, the group had taken shelter in a field when a mob of 20-30 people armed with sickles, swords and sticks attacked them.

Ms Bano was gang-raped and seven of her family members were killed, while six others had managed to run away. Ms Bano’s three-year-old daughter was one of those killed.

The convicts’ release was announced on Monday, the day India celebrated its 75th Independence Day and prime minister Narendra Modi, leader of the Hindu nationalist BJP and the state’s chief minister at the time, spoke of women’s empowerment in his annual speech.

One of Gujarat’s top state government officers, Raj Kumar, told The Indian Express the application for remission of the life sentence for the convicts was considered due to the “completion of 14 years” in jail and other factors like “age, nature of the crime, behaviour in prison and so on”.

After the incident, Ms Bano had approached India’s National Human Rights Commission and a federal probe under the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) was ordered subsequently by the Supreme Court.

In 2004, the top court directed the case to be transferred out of Gujarat and to neighbouring Maharashtra state after Ms Bano alleged receiving death threats from the accused.

In 2008, a CBI special court convicted 13 accused, sentencing 11 to life imprisonment on the charge of gang-rape and murder.

In May 2017, the conviction was upheld by the Bombay High Court.

In 2019, the Supreme Court directed the Gujarat government to pay Rs 5 million (£52,400) as compensation to Ms Bano and provide her a job and a house.

One of the 11 convicts, Radheshyam Shah, filed a plea in the top court saying he had been in jail for 15 years and 4 months without remission as of 1 April 2022.

In May, the court directed the case to the Gujarat government as the crime had been committed there.

The Gujarat government subsequently formed a committee which unanimously agreed in favour of remission.

“The recommendation was sent to the state government, and yesterday we received the orders for their release,” said Sujal Mayatra, the top officer for Panchmahal district who headed the panel, on Monday.

In June, India’s federal government had proposed a special release policy for convicted prisoners to mark India’s 75th Independence Day and issued guidelines to states which included rape convicts among those who are not to be granted release under this policy, reported NDTV.

After their release was announced, Shah said that he was “glad” to have a new beginning.

“I feel glad to be out as I will be able to meet my family members and begin a new life,” he told Press Trust of India.

A social media video showed the 11 convicts being greeted by family members outside Godhra jail after their release.

Images showed the convicts being offered sweets, as relatives touched their feet seeking their blessings.

Ms Bano’s husband Yakub Rasul said the family did not want to comment on the release yet.

“We were not told about this... All we want to do is pray for peace of the souls of our near and dear ones who lost their lives in the riots. Everyday we remember those who were killed in the incident, including our daughter,” he said.