Saleha was only three years old. The attackers smashed her head to the ground – in front of Bilkis Bano’s terrified mother. A 21-year-old woman who was five months pregnant was soon raped by a group of male friends. The torturers left her naked in the street because they thought she was already dead. When she regained consciousness, she saw fourteen of her family members brutally killed. After fifteen years of fighting, her torturers were legally sentenced to life imprisonment in India. Recently – to the indignation of the country’s inhabitants and international public opinion – they have been released.
Garlands appeared in the streets, candies were prepared. Thus, in the Indian village of Randhikpur, inhabited mainly by Hindus, one of the men was greeted who – theoretically – should never be released. In 2008, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for participating in a nightmare that took place in 2002 in the Indian state of Gujarat. There was then an attack on Muslims living there. It was supposed to be a retaliation for the deaths of 59 Indian pilgrims who had died a few days earlier in a train fire. Although the investigation has never confirmed this, the tragedy was recognized by part of the public as an attack by Muslims.
When the riots broke out, Bilkis Bano was 21 years old and five months pregnant. She and her family tried to escape from the attacked town. On the way, however, they were stopped by a group of several dozen men. The attackers – as the woman told the New York Times – first killed her three-year-old daughter.
“They pulled her out of the truck and smashed her head to the ground,” the woman said. Then, she reported, a group of men brutally raped her. Bano knew her torturers – several lived with her in the same town. During her nightmare, the attackers took turns killing her family members. Bano only survived because she passed out and the torturers thought she was already dead. They left her naked, lying on the ground. Next to it were the bodies of members of her family.
War for justice
Bilkis Bano – as she claimed – had to fight the Indian justice system in demanding the conviction of the murderers. In an interview with the portal “The Hindu” she said that the police deliberately obstructed the investigation and threatened her that something bad could happen to her for publicizing the case. However, she did not resign – she applied to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and referred the case to the Indian Supreme Court.
Also read: Sexual Violence in India. Report
A month later, all the torturers indicated by her were arrested. The trial started in 2004 and ended with the conviction of 13 out of 20 accused. The eleven men – who had been found guilty of gang rape and the murder of Bano’s loved ones – would never be released again. The court found that the local policemen hindered the gathering of evidence and sentenced one of the uniformed officers to three years in prison.
The sentences were validly upheld in 2017. Bilkis Bano and her relatives were convinced that the nightmare of years ago was over forever. They were wrong.
Gentlemen from “good families”
Earlier this year, one of the inmates applied to the Indian Supreme Court for early release. He pointed out that a law passed in 1992 gave judges the right to release prisoners to life imprisonment after spending 14 years in a cell. The Supreme Court decided that the application should be examined by the administrative authorities of the state of Gujarat, where the crime took place years ago.
The local authorities therefore appointed a commission which concluded that the convicts could now be released. On August 15, 11 inmates left the Godhra prison. A video has been posted on the Internet showing members of the convicts’ families greeting them outside the prison walls with sweets and touching their feet as a sign of respect.
The decision to release the convicts met with opposition from international opinion, but at the same time with understanding among politicians from the Indian People’s Party. The commission that freed the 11 men included its politician CK Raulji. He said he “doesn’t know if [skazańcy – red.] they actually committed a crime or not. “In an interview with local journalists, he suggested that, as New York Times journalists recalled, the sentence was served by” high-caste “Hindu believers:
– The activity of their family was very good; they are brahmanas. And as with the brahmanas, their values were also very good, ”Raulji said. When his words sparked a wave of indignation in society, he tried to back away from them. When it turned out that the comment was videotaped, the politician argued that “the words had been taken out of context”.
Bilkis Bano did not hide in an interview with the BBC that the decision to release the torturers “shattered” her.
When I heard that they were free, I felt a terrible, numbing fear. I trusted the justice system in this country, she said, terrified.
She said that for several years – until the final conviction of the men – she had to move many times and hide her identity because she was afraid of revenge. In 2017, she believed that her nightmare was over.
Her husband Yakub Rasul insisted that no one had warned the family that criminals could be released.
The people of India did not remain indifferent to the nightmare of the woman and her family: protests began in the streets, and the Supreme Court received conclusions pointing to the need to analyze the state authorities’ decision to release 11 convicts early.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court said it would investigate the issue of a possible revocation of the decision of the Gujarat state authorities.
India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi, was Gujarat’s chief minister during the riots, and his Indian nationalist Indian People’s Party continues to rule the country.
Reuters, BBC, New York Times
Main photo source: PAP / EPA / JAGADEESH NV