Bilkis Bano Case: Release of Convicts ‘Part of a Pattern’ in India, Says USCIRF

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The US Commission of International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has condemned the “unjustified” early release of 11 men convicted in the Bilkis Bano rape case.

NEW DELHI — The US Commission of International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on Friday strongly condemned the “unjustified” release of 11 men who had been convicted for raping Bilkis Bano during the 2002 Gujarat riots and killing 14 members of her family.

“USCIRF strongly condemns the early and unjustified release of 11 men sentenced to life in prison for raping a pregnant Muslim woman and committing murder against Muslim victims during the 2002 Gujarat Riots,” USCIRF vice chair Abraham Cooper said in a statement.

USCIRF commissioner Stephen Schneck added that the Frelease was a “travesty of justice”, and only added to the “pattern of impunity” enjoyed by those accused of anti-minority violence in India. “The failure to hold accountable perpetrators of the 2002 Gujarat Riots who committed physical & sexual violence is a travesty of justice. It’s part of a pattern of impunity in India for those engaged in violence against religious minorities,” Schneck said.

The 11 men were convicted of the crime and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2008 after the Supreme Court decided to hand over investigation of the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation following a complaint from the National Human Rights Commission that the Gujarat police – which reported to then chief minister Narendra Modi – was protecting the accused. The apex court also agreed with the NHRC’s request that the case be tried in Maharashtra since the Gujarat government could not be counted upon to ensure a fair trial.

On Wednesday, the 11 men walked free following the Gujarat government’s decision to release them. One of the men on the panel that recommended the release – BJP MLA C.K. Raulji – referred to the rapists as “Brahmins” who have “good sanskar (values)”.

Over 6,000 people – including hundreds of women’s rights activists – have urged the Supreme Court to revoke the decision to grant the convicts remission of their sentence.

“When I heard that the 11 convicted men who devastated my family and my life, and took from me my 3 year old daughter, had walked free. I was bereft of words. I am still numb,” Bilkis said after the release.

“Today, I can say only this – 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. My sorrow and my wavering faith is not for myself alone but for every woman who is struggling for justice in courts.”

After the violence erupted following the burning of a Sabarmati Express coach that killed 59 ‘karsevaks ‘on February 27, 2002, Bilkis Bano, who was five-month pregnant at that time, fled her village with her toddler daughter and 15 others.

On March 3, they took shelter in a field when a mob of 20-30 people armed with sickles, swords and sticks attacked them and Bilkis Bano was gang raped, while seven members of her family were killed. Six other members managed to run away.

Given the outrage over the incident, the Supreme Court ordered a CBI probe.

The accused in the case were arrested in 2004.

The trial began in Ahmedabad. However, after Bilkis Bano expressed apprehensions that witnesses could be harmed and the evidence collected by the CBI tampered with, the Supreme Court transferred the case to Mumbai in August 2004.

The special CBI court on January 21, 2008, sentenced the 11 accused to life imprisonment on the charge of gang rape and murder of seven members of Bilkis Bano’s family. They were convicted on charges of conspiring to rape a pregnant woman, murder and unlawful assembly under the Indian Penal Code.

The special court acquitted seven other accused for want of evidence. One of the accused had died during the trial.

In its 2018 order upholding the conviction of the accused persons, the Bombay high court set aside the acquittal of seven persons.

The Supreme Court, in April 2019, directed the Gujarat government to pay Rs 50 lakh compensation, a job, and a house to Bilkis Bano. At the time, others who had been victims of serious violence during the communal riots in Gujarat saw this judgment as a ray of hope. However, that hope now appears to have been extinguished by the convicts’ release.

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