This week, 11 men serving life sentences for the crimes were released from prison after being pardoned by the Gujarat state government, sparking widespread outrage and an emotional call for justice from Bano.
In a statement issued Wednesday through her lawyer, Bano said the news left behind had “stunned” and “robbed” her.
“I trusted the system and slowly learned to live with my trauma,” she said, adding that the release had shaken her confidence in the justice system. “No one questioned my safety and well-being before making such a big and unjust decision.”
The development comes as a shock to the country struggling to tackle widespread sexual violence against women. In recent years, authorities have tightened the laws and imposed tougher sentences, but rape convictions remain low.
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Women’s rights groups said the release of the perpetrators on August 15, a 75th anniversary of the country’s independence, dealt a blow to any rape victim.
“We are ashamed that on the day we were supposed to celebrate our freedoms and be proud of our independence, the women of India instead saw the liberation of gang rapists and mass murderers as an act of state generosity,” the groups said in a statement. declaration.
It was also a setback for the survivors of the riots in Gujarat, who fought long and hard for justice. Riots broke out in 2002 after a train fire blamed on Muslims killed a group of Hindu pilgrims. More than 1,000 people were killed in the days of vigilante violence that followed, most of them Muslims. Narendra Modi, then the prime minister of Gujarat, is now the prime minister of India. Under his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, hate speech and violence against Muslims has skyrocketed.
The men released this week have been given a hero’s welcome. In a video from outside the prison, they show: get candy. Local media said the men were later honored with flower garlands by members of Hindu nationalist groups affiliated with the BJP.
Sujal Mayatra, the official who led the Gujarat panel that recommended the men’s release, said the decision was based on several factors.
“They had been employed for 14 years. We asked about their behavior and their parole,” he said. “The nature of the crime and the safety of the victim were also taken into account.”
In India, life sentences are intended to last until death, but convicts are eligible for parole after 14 years. While under the latest remission policy those convicted of rape and murder cannot be released early, the policy at the time of the Bano case did not make that distinction.
In a 2017 BBC interview, Bano said she was fleeing violence against a group of 17, including her mother and young siblings, in March 2002 when a mob approached them.
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In addition to raping Bano and murdering her daughter, the men raped her cousin before killing her and her two-day-old baby. Bano was one of only three people from the group to survive the massacre.
Human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover, who was part of the effort to reform legislation on violence against women, described the government’s decision as “grossly arbitrary and discriminatory”.
“The mask of the government concerned about sexual violence against women has fallen off. This is a majority state indicating impunity for hate crimes,” she said.
Bano’s case took years to make its way through the Indian legal system, eventually resulting in convictions in 2008. All the while, she was the target of death threats, forced to move regularly and live in hiding.
In 2019, the Indian Supreme Court ordered the state government to pay about $62,000 in compensation to Bano, noting that she had been forced to live as a “nomad” and an “orphan”.
Now her family feels like they are back to square one.
“The battle that we have been fighting for so many years has been fought in one moment,” Bano’s husband Yakub Rasool told the Indian Express.
Bano said in her statement that her grief was not hers alone, “but for every woman struggling for justice in courts.”
“Give me back my right to live without fear and in peace,” she said.